Happiness and the Environment in Costa Rica vs. the United States

Nichols Arboretum. Ann Arbor, Michigan. Jana Shemano, 2018.

Nichols Arboretum. Ann Arbor, Michigan. Jana Shemano, 2018.

The Happy Planet Index, founded in July 2006 by statistician Nic Marks measures the wellbeing of a country’s citizens; it “shows that it is possible to live good lives without costing the Earth.” Marks is set on identifying the positive outcomes that environmental action can have on individuals, the planet, and on society’s well being -- steering away from the negative perspective of the future of the environment -- while showing that economic development is not the key to happiness.



The importance of happiness that Marks utilizes to measure the Happy Planet Index is notably explained in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle asserts his belief that happiness is the final destination in life. He writes that when people make decisions “in the sake of honour, pleasure, reason, and every virtue” that “we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy”. Alternatively, when making decisions based on happiness, Aristotle believed that no one chooses happiness for the sake of anything other “than itself”. In summary, Aristotle believed that there is no explanation to the search for happiness, other than happiness is innate to human nature.


In Marks’s TedX talk at Oxford, England, he reinterprets Aristotle’s text stating that “we should be happy and the planet should be happy” and that happiness should be the goal “of every nation on the planet”. Marks then presents a graph of what people believe is most important in life ranking happiness first, health and love in second, and wealth in third. Despite these statistics, however, Marks discusses how western culture currently does not account for happiness when making decisions about the environment as they do with economic and materialistic gains. Most notably Americans continue to attribute happiness to wealth and success, when Costa Rica, the happiest place in the world, has a thriving environment and lack of economic wealth.


Costa Rica’s continuous ranking as the happiest country in the world is caused by an extremely low Ecological Footprint and highly efficient system of “generating long, happy lives in terms of the resources it consumes”, according to the Happy Planet Index. This way of life can be traced back to 1948 when Costa Rica peacefully abolished their army after a 44 day Civil War and dedicated their military funds to social, environmental and educational projects. Since then, the Costa Rican government has committed to becoming “carbon neutral in 2021” and produces 99% of its energy from renewable resources. Unlike western countries who target economic and technological advancements, Costa Rica focuses on accomplishing health and happiness through environmental action. The country is a jovial place brimming with happy, content people, despite their lack of advanced technology and economy.


Comparatively, the United States ranks 108th on the 2016 Happy Planet Index. America’s priorities, according to the Happy Planet Index, are not in order to produce a happy, sustainable society. Lauren Greenfield, creator of the collection of photos “Generation Wealth”, cogently captures America’s distorted desires. In her collection, Greenfield highlights America’s eagerness for opulence, wealth, inflated ego and lack of environmental awareness. Americans’ blatant disregard for anything but economic and technological advancements portrays why the United States ranks extremely low on the Happy Planet Index. They are unable to understand the detrimental effects that over-consumption has on their wellbeing and the environment. Taking care of the environment has a direct impact on an individuals well being. It is crucial that Americans understand and further integrate this correlation between the environment and happiness into daily life in order to create a healthy, happy and sustainable country.


The Happy Planet Index represents the necessity of taking care of the environment. Life and nature are precious, serene and beautiful. As a result, nature should not be sacrificed for the consumption of exorbitant amounts of resources and materials in order to redeem the economy or the ego. The assessment of the level of happiness of each country around the globe further demonstrates how environmental action also takes the format of a moral movement as it strives for happiness and peace with life and nature. Facing the environmental movement head on is essential to saving the planet from severe natural destruction and also achieving human’s one true end goal: happiness.



Jana Shemano is a student at the University of Michigan studying English and Psychology. She loves to learn, meet new people, gain different perspective, and have healthy debates. She also aspires to ski down Mt. Kilimanjaro.

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