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.

Screen Shot 2018-07-12 at 11.01.25 AM.png

Why Venezuelans are some of the Unhappiest People in the World

Venezuelans were once among the world’s happiest people. Then the country descended into economic chaos and humanitarian crisis. Jorge Silva/Ruters

Venezuelans were once among the world’s happiest people. Then the country descended into economic chaos and humanitarian crisis. Jorge Silva/Ruters

Venezuelans used to be among the happiest people on the planet. 

In 2012, they voted themselves into fifth place in a global Gallup survey on happiness. In 2013, this South American country ranked 20th out of the 156 countries included in the United Nations’ annual World Happiness Report, which assesses well-being worldwide based on measures like wealth, life expectancy and corruption. 

My home country used to be a prosperous, cheerful place. People were proud to be from Venezuela – a place known for its friendly citizens and beauty queens: Venezuela has produced six Miss Worlds and seven Miss Universes.

Not anymore. This year, Venezuela plunged to 102nd place of 156 countries in the World Happiness Report. By comparison, Denmark topped the list and the United States came in 18th. 

What happened?

Terrible leadership

Venezuela has changed dramatically in recent years. 

President Nicolás Maduro – who was elected to succeed the popular late leader Hugo Chávez in 2013 – has turned out to be a kind of King Midas in reverse. Everything he touches seemingly turns to garbage. 

Venezuela’s economy was already going south in Chavez’s last years. But under Maduro it has collapsed. Venezuela is drowning in debt, with annual inflation of 15,565 percent

Once poor people are now starving. On average, Venezuelans have lost 24 pounds each since food shortages began in 2015. 

Meanwhile, the middle class is disappearing. According to the labor union UNETE, 75 percent of Venezuelan workers no longer earn enough to support their families.

Maduro’s government censors crime data, but citizen groups estimate that 28,479 Venezuelans were killed in 2016, up from 16,549 in 2014. Those are conflict zone-level casualties

Fleeing these unbearable living conditions, thousands of Venezuelans have begun pouring across the border into neighboring Colombia and Brazil every day.

Rigged elections

Amid all this, Venezuelans must choose their next president on May 20 in an election that international democracy monitors consider a farce

Maduro has systematically persecuted his opponents, sending them to jail or into exile. The regime has also used the state apparatus to boost its electoral prospects, trading food for votes, suppressing turnout in dissident districts and crushing anti-regime protests.

As a result, this wildly unpopular president is running for reelection without meaningful opposition and is likely to win.


Venezuelans live in terror. People fear falling ill, because medicine is scarce. They fear being murdered. They fear political repression

It’s hard to be happy under a dictatorship

Many Venezuelans have lost any hope of political change. Maduro has crippled Venezuela’s independent institutions, stacking the Supreme Court with loyalists and stripping the National Assembly of its legislative powersFreedom of speech is long gone

And if all that’s not bad enough, the 2018 Miss Venezuela pageant has been suspended after allegations of prostitution among its contestants.


MIGUEL ANGEL LATOUCHE is an Associate Professor at Universidad Central de Venezuela