Every Sunday, when his health allows, 100-year-old Francisco Gómez gets a ride from his daughter to the outskirts of town, where he spends the day at a community center dancing. Gómez didn’t really learn to dance until he started attending these weekly gatherings for the elderly and their caretakers. He says the dances have given him something to look forward to since the death of his wife earlier this year.
The dances are just one of the activities coordinated by Progressive Attention Network for Integral Elder Care, a program created by Costa Rica’s Health Ministry in 2010 to help elderly people stay active and socially engaged. Though the network spans Costa Rica, it is particularly robust on Nicoya, a peninsula on the country’s Pacific coast that is among five world regions known as blue zones, where people live the longest. Researchers from National Geographic identified high levels of spirituality, a strong cultural base and close social relationships as ingredients in the peninsula’s recipe for a long life.
This government strategy seems to have paid off, and Costa Rica continuously ranks as one of the happiest places on earth. The countries at the top of the happiness scale are relatively wealthy; Costa Rica is a notable exception. The country’s GDP per capita is $11,630, compared with $59,531 in the U.S., which lags behind Costa Rica in happiness.
“Costa Rica tells us that there is something beyond money that is important,” said Mariano Rojas, a happiness expert from Costa Rica and an economics professor at the Latin American Social Sciences Institute. “There is a difference between the quantity of money you have and the way you use it. There is a way to spend money that contributes to the happiness of the people.”
In 1948, Costa Rica abolished its military, rededicating its defense budget to education, health and pensions. Even as new administrations have come and gone, this basic budgeting tenet has remained intact. In 2016, Costa Rica spent more on education as a proportion of GDP than any country except one, according to data from the World Bank.
Since the mid-20th century, Costa Rica has had public health care to which all Costa Ricans have access, along with free and compulsory primary and secondary education. And it is the only country in Central America where 100 percent of the population has access to electricity.