6 Costa Rican secrets to a life of happiness

Home to one of the original ‘blue zones’ and many centenarians, happiness and health converge in Costa Rica. So what can we learn from the Central American hot spot?

Curious about what us Aussies can learn from life in a small Central American country with an express lane to happiness?

Perhaps the first clue comes from the fact Costa Rica, meaning “rich coast” in Spanish, is home to the Nicoya Peninsula – one of the world’s five original blue zone regions (where people live the longest and are the healthiest).

About one in every 250 people in Nicoya, a 129km-long peninsula just south of the Nicaraguan border, lives to the age of 100.

Not only that, Costa Rica consistently ranks in the top 20 in the United Nation’s World Happiness Report, despite having one of the lowest GDPs among the top-scoring countries.

So what can we learn from Costa Rico’s template for a happy life?

1.     Want a happy home? Family comes first

The world’s longest study of adult development, an ongoing Harvard research project, found relationships are the key to happier and healthier lives.

On Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, blue zone investigators found centenarians usually live as a couple or with their kids, grandkids and other family members.

“Research into longevity, wellbeing and life satisfaction has generally all found the same thing – that having good quality relationships and social support is the key to overall wellbeing, aka happiness,” says psychologist Briony Leo, a coach at New York-based relationship wellness app Relish.

2.     Pulses and grains make for happy living

Modern Nicoyans remain heavily influenced by the diet of the indigenous Chorotega people of beans, rice and fresh corn tortillas, supplemented with fruits and vegetables and occasional animal protein.

“Beans are an inexpensive source of protein and fibre, have a low GI and are loaded with micronutrients including folate, zinc, iron and magnesium,” says dietitian Geraldine Georgeou, director of Designer Diets in Sydney.

“Corn is also a great source of fibre with essential minerals and B vitamins.”

3.     A pure and simple outlook on life

Pura vida isn’t only a slogan in Costa Rica, it’s a lifestyle.

Meaning “pure life” or “simple life”, the two words sum up the country’s sunny attitude to each day, no matter what the circumstances, with the phrase used to say hello, goodbye and everything’s OK.

There’s a huge priority on socialising in this Central American country, where people know how to have a good time and seem to live with less anxiety.

“Our attitudes and perceptions can have a real impact on stress, and stress in turn is a strong predictor of mental health,” Victoria University Institute of Health and Sport researcher Michaela Pascoe says.

4.     Eat light at night

Costa Ricans, known as Ticos locally, don’t eat excessively and lunch is the most important meal of the day.

Dinner is a light meal, eaten early in the evening.

Research has found a smaller dinner and a larger lunch could be the key to helping us shift unwanted weight and may also improve our insulin sensitivity.

“It sounds like the Costa Ricans very much listen to their own personal nutrient needs and don’t eat late at night when they’re not going to be using that fuel load,” Geraldine observes.

5.     Have a sense of purpose

The Ticos call it plan de vida, which basically translates to “why I wake up in the morning”.

Blue Zone researchers found successful centenarians have a strong sense of plan de vida – they feel wanted and needed and that they are contributing to the greater good – which they equate with up to seven years of extra life expectancy.

“We benefit psychologically from being part of a supportive and close-knit community that is working towards similar goals, with similar values, and can suffer psychologically when we feel isolated and separate from that,” Briony says.

6.     Get enough physical activity (and sunshine)

For the world’s longest-living people it’s not so much about gyms or running marathons, but rather incidental every day movement that comes from activities like walking to the market, cultivating the land, and every day physical chores.

“Research shows physical activity in general is very beneficial in terms of mental health and wellbeing,” Michaela says.

“There’s also evidence to show that some types of physical activity can be more beneficial, such as being outdoors and/or engaging in group activities.”

There are more lessons to be learned from the world’s longest lived but our take-away is this: Keep pura vida front of mind and you might just start to feel like life is a little easier.

Words by Liz McGrath.