I’ve been thinking about health and happiness as I’ve cycled through Nicoya – a peninsula in Costa Rica – that is one of the world’s five Blue Zones. Blue Zones refer to regions of the world where the people have extraordinarily good health, such that there is a much higher concentration than other parts of the world of people living for a very long time.Nicoya is said to have the world’s lowest rates of middle-age mortality and the second highest concentration of male centenarians. The other Blue Zones, which include Sardinia (Italy), Okinawa (Japan), Seventh day Adventists in Loma Linda (California), and Icaria (Greece), can also boast to have extraordinarily high levels of longevity.
What is it about the Blue Zones?
What has been highlighted the most when drawing conclusions about health from observing people that live in these so-called Blue Zones is how similar the way of life is. Those in Blue Zone’s tend to: give priority to their family life, engage in constant physical activity, don’t smoke but drink alcohol a little, are socially active, consume a largely plant-based diet, have a strong life purpose, and are also religious or spiritual.It seems to me like no coincidence that most of these factors are also important contributors to happiness. The data consistently illustrates that relationships (family and socially), having a life purpose, having a religious or spiritual life, and indeed health itself (mentally and physically), are some of the most important contributors to happiness. We also know that personality is an important contributor, as is economic stability, and it seems to me that both are more or less implied in the important health factors that arise from observation of the Blue Zones.
I’m not sure how happy people are in the Blue Zones. I’d imagine that the happiness is quite high as researchers have shown that if someone experiences more happiness then they also tend to live longer. This it is suggested is because although “happiness does not cure illness it does protect against becoming ill”.
The health and happiness of Costa Rica
I’ve enjoyed cycling in Costa Rica. No doubt I’m happier and healthier for it! However, this aside, it’s been a particularly important part of my journey because Costa Rica is famed for its ability to produce relatively happy citizens. Some like to see Costa Rica simply as an anomaly with regard to their happiness levels because happiness is high despite there not being a particularly large economy.
But given the decades of research in this area this should not be surprising at all. Material standards of living are important up to a point. Once basic needs are met increments in material standards of life become much less important than the things aforementioned (relationships, health, and personality etc.). I’ve seen this consistently in the data I’ve analysed and also experienced in my own life in my path of voluntary simplicity.
The average life expectancy in Costa Rica is also very high at 79.1 (2006), which puts it just ahead of the United States (78.8). No doubt this is helped by the presence of a Blue Zone in the country but they’ve also invested substantially over the years in health (8.1% of GDP as of 2015) and education (7.1% of GDP as of 2015). Importantly when looking at common factors across the Blue Zones there is no mention of material standards of living. In each of the Blue Zones life is relatively simple and seemingly free of stress. Costa Rica is far from perfect but in many ways it epitomises the actualisation of a lifestyle on a national scale that research suggests would support sustained high well-being.
Meanwhile in other parts of the world
Most countries prioritise the economy. Yet by doing so some have argued means we have created workplaces that are literally killing people. The cartoon to the right strikes a chord with me as it implies that it doesn’t matter if the focus is on the economy rather than well-being (health or happiness) is harming people’s health so long as there is a way of dealing with the symptoms through the use of pharmaceuticals (diabetes, depression, heart disease etc.). But why, when, as Costa Rica illustrates, we can have just as high health and happiness levels without high levels of economic development and therefore do so with greater harmony with ourselves and our planet.