Happiness in the USA–Just Walk in the Forest


(Trail to Columbine Lake, Continental Divide, Grand County, Colorado)

My efforts to simulate the things in Costa Rica that make them the happiest people on Earth according to the Happy Planet Index failed miserably in the U.S., specifically in Colorado.  Sunsets go down behind jagged purple foothills long before they’ve had a chance to change colors and create optical illusions of huge orbs sinking into perfectly horizontal planes.  And our families here are just different.  The nuclear family is the norm, not the extended family that includes aunts and uncles and even best friends.  Our relatives live in different states.  We cannot get together to celebrate birthdays and graduations very easily much less have huge family meals and outings together.

But Colorado does have other things that are actually proven to make people happy.  Even though the US is 27th on the Happy Planet Index, maybe Colorado judged alone would be higher.  I say this because, with the exception of Hawaii, Colorado is the only other state to rank in the top 10 healthiest states for eight years in a row since the 2015 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index began measuring well-being.  Coloradans have a high sense of well-being according to the index.  And it’s no wonder.  Most of us are outside walking, biking, hiking and just taking advantage of our beautiful state.

As it turns out, some of the things we do here in Colorado are proven to make people happy.  I was resting with my Italian Greyhound in a hammock at 8,800 feet in my backyard, surrounded by about 200 lodgepole pine trees, some wildflowers, and listening to lots of black squirrels scurrying around in the trees, and hummingbirds whizzing by while a slice of sun cut across half my body, warming me.  I remember thinking, “This is heaven.”  It was not about the hammock. The air just smelled different–earthy, alive.  It turns out the air is different.  And it does make you happy.

The July 25, 2016, edition of Time magazine reported on a Japanese study begun in the 1980’s of “forest-bathing” or shinrin yoku to reduce stress.  One of the studies showed that people who walked in a forest for 40 minutes had greatly reduced cortisol compared to those who walked for 40 minutes in a lab. And cortisol is that substance we do not want building up because it increases our blood pressure and stress.

But the best part of the study found that the forests are magical just like in the faery tales!  Okay not really but almost.  The trees and plants emit aromatic compounds called phytoncides.  When people breath them, they become healthier.  They provide protection against cancer, better immunity and lower blood pressure.  Best of all, they relieve depression and make people feel happy!  The trees are drugging us!

I googled “shinrin yoku” and found a whole U.S. website dedicated to providing guided tours through the woods of less than a mile.  I presume these tours are for those who are unable to appreciate the forests on their own or need some guide to say, “Behold, a beautiful tree.  Touch it.  Smell it.”  Bless capitalism.

Alas, I live in the city, not in the mountains.  While I can go on hikes on the weekends, I’d like to stay happy all week.  My husband suggested walking figure eights around all the trees in the park across the street every day.  It sounds silly, but don’t they emit phytoncides, too?  I could pretend I’m training my dog while I’m actually being drugged by trees.  I understand cannabis sounds easier and it is legal here but I’m looking for more natural highs, like in that corny John Denver song.

Interestingly, my tai chi chen pan ling teacher always teaches in the trees.  And he knows a lot of ancient Chinese stuff.  I think there is something to this forest bathing. Something that increases our sense of well-being.  A lot of Coloradans have found it and they probably do not know why.  I think the Happy Planet Index people should separate us from the other states.  Then they should compare us to Costa Rica!  I bet Colorado would at least make the top 10.  Think of all the trees we have.


Culture Shock Upon Re-Entry To The USA


I have one day left in this beautiful country where howler monkeys swing from trees in front on me while I sip coffee at dusk, where the sunsets are red, where armadillos and porcupines root around on the ground at dawn, where parrots are not in cages and where the cacophony of insects, reptiles and birds lulls me to sleep at night.  I am nervous about going back to Colorado after 31 days here, and not just because it is cold and snowy there.

I’m afraid I will fail to incorporate the things I have learned here into my daily life and I will go right back into being a materialistic person, ensconced in a big house that keeps out nature.  Sure, it will be nice not to have to pick bugs out of my juice and shower without ants, and drip with sweat at 7:30 a.m. as I’m doing now, but I’m talking about the bigger stuff.  Will I make it a point to find out what time the sun sets and go watch it?  Will I continue to rise at dawn because after all of these days, my circadian rhythm is in tune with the sun?  Will I continue to be active, not because it is exercise but because I want to see things and it is a mode of transportation, such as hiking?

And then there are the biggest things.  One night last week I received real insight into Tico families. One of their biggest holidays is Semana Santa, or Easter Week.  Everyone from San Jose and all across the country rushes to the beaches (where I am) and sets up tarps and chairs and blares boom boxes and dines from their ice chests.  It is a tremendous party and traffic comes to a complete halt wherever you go if it is towards a beach.  It is quite the scene.

Well at the little hotel to which I had escaped to get some air-conditioning (okay, I’m soft, but it has been hard to sleep at the house I rented when the temperature is 98 degrees!), I met a Tico family.  The 28 year old marketing executive from San Jose was very patient with me and we spoke only in Spanish.  His 11 year old niece and mother only spoke Spanish.  They invited me to a different beach and I invited them to dinner.  I could tell the expense concerned them so I chose a place where we could split a pizza.    I learned that Daniela lived with her grandmother because her mother was beginning a new life with her new fiancé.  Dwight continued to live with his mother, even though he has a girlfriend and a job, because that is how it is done in Costa Rica.  A 21 year old brother  with a baby and the grandfather also live at their home in San Jose.

I did not do a good job hiding my shock to learn Daniela’s mother had “abandoned” her so she could run off with a new man.  When I asked why Daniela did not live with her mother, the grandmother seemed to thing I was estupido and answered that her daughter needed to start a new life.  All three of them looked at me like I was crazy.  Of course beautiful Daniela was going to live with with her grandmother and two cousins who loved her.  And there is my point.  There seems to be no distinction between immediate family and extended family in Costa Rica.  Cousins are as good as sisters and all are welcome to live in each other’s homes.  I have noticed this when I ask questions of other Ticos.  I ask who they live with and they initially say my brother but it turns out it is really a nephew.

So back to the biggest things–family.  There’s a saying in the US when family comes to stay with you that family is like fish:  After three days you throw them out.  (Notice I do not say American anymore.  I got chewed out by a Tico for saying that.  He said, “We are all Americans.”  He was correct.)  So personally, I would like to get rid of that idea of fish and family in my psyche.  The Ticos have it right.  I watch the way my son adores his cousins.  My son is basically an only child since my two older boys are 12 and 14 years older than him.  So when he sees his cousins, he’s in heaven.  Unfortunately, they moved from Denver to Minneapolis.  But we have airplanes.  I need to help strengthen those bonds.  I picked this family.  My husband’s family is awesome.  My son could see more of them.  I do not have to just talk about the importance of family but I need to show it, even when it is not convenient for me or it is not necessarily what I want to do.

And another biggest thing is materialism.  My Spanish teacher wore the same shorts to school three days out of four.  I am positive she knew how cute she looked in them. Ticos do not care as much about material things as US people do.  For us, it is always a rush to have the latest iPhone and the newest MacBook and the coolest car.  Ticos do not seem to have the sense of entitlement that we have grown up having.  Yet I have to repeat myself from previous posts, all polls show they are the happiest people on Earth.

For Ticos, a biggest thing is ecology.  I mention this last because in Colorado, most of us are very good at recycling, taking care of our forests, and conservation.  This comes pretty naturally to me from 37 years of living in Boulder, Denver and Fraser.

So I gave myself, and my husband said take it, unlimited freedom to explore myself while exploring Costa Rica and working on my Spanish.  I have shared what I have learned through these posts.  The real challenge begins when I hit US soil, hopefully on time, tomorrow night.

I want to plan a trip with my son to visit his cousins this summer when school is out.  I may make this break from work permanent since my son is entering those dangerous years–those teenage years that can be so crazy.  I want to be around for him.  I want to stop my addiction to Zappos.com (I’m a VIP member) and take a walk or look up the time for the sunset and go watch it.  I already have at least 100 pairs of shoes to walk around in!  Even though I am renting out our home in the mountains, I am going to  make it a point to get up there and hike and kiss a tree, seriously.

I am so grateful for all of the things I have in my life, whether I need them or not.  At this moment, after being here in Costa Rica on my solo adventure, I am most grateful for having a loving family, and a loving extended family.  I am grateful we have a second home in the mountains to use as a base for mountain biking, although now slower hikes to appreciate the beauty of the trees and trail and streams are what I am after.

My husband said he needed to purge some of his junk.  After this trip, I think a purge of things I do not need is a great idea.  It will be a big pile.  After all, we really do not need much in the way of material items.  I have learned that here.

I continue to feel nervous.  As soon as I arrive in Houston I imagine myself freaking out when I see a Starbucks.  I have not seen one for 30 days.  I do not care for Starbucks at all.  I prefer independent coffee shops.  I imagine Texans will be very loud and that will make me anxious.  People here are very tranquil.  I imagine the person sitting next to me on the plane asking me why I have such a nice tan, and I will say, “Because I was in Costa Rica at the beach,” as I put my headphones on.

The Right to a Peaceful Country

Costa Rica has no army.  Read that again.  Costa Rica also has the lowest homicide rate in Central America.  Now think of where Costa Rica is in relation to other countries.  Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world by far and is only a little more than 400 miles from Costa Rica.  Belize has the fourth highest homicide rate and is right next door to Honduras.  Many of the deaths are due to drug wars.  Speaking of which, Columbia, further away at 740 miles, supplies about 90% of the world’s cocaine, of which the US is the number one consumer.  However, according to President Obama, on their way to the US, the drug traffickers from South America must make at least one stop in a Central American country, and one of those countries is Costa Rica, according to the 2015 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report issued by the US State Department.

But the Costa Rican Government does not want cocaine or other drugs here, where they are illegal.  That does not mean they do not exist here.  My gringo sources tell me that marijuana is very expensive and bad and cocaine is very cheap and good.

Since there is no army here, Costa Rica relies on its Coast Guard to attempt to stop the drug trafficking.  The Government has entered into a bilateral agreement with the US where the two countries share resources such as training and US Coast Guard boats and planes to stop the shipments.  According to the locals, it is not atypical to see US planes and boats chasing speed boats along the coast.  The Tico Times reported that a US plane spotted a drug-loaded boat en route from Columbia passing Costa Rica, alerted the Costa Rican government and the occupants began unloading kilos of cocaine into the ocean, just as the Costa Rican Coast Guard intercepted the Columbian boat, collected the cocaine and jailed the boaters.

The police guard the borders, again, often trained by the US border patrol.  But a big reason for not having a military is the obvious:  Costa Rica does not start or enter other countries’s wars.  Compare this to the US.  Enough said.  Isn’t it?

Further, Costa Rico has a very small ecological footprint of which the country is proud.  I assume from all of the bicycles, motorcycles and horses I see, this country is far less dependent on gasoline than the US.  There is not much reason to protect oil resources in the Middle East compared to the US.

Some resources, namely the Tico Times, credit the lack of armed conflict with drug cartels from neighboring countries with the country’s lack of a military itself.  There has been no civil war or unrest since 1948.  A January 14, 2015 Tico Times report states that Costa Rica is so successful combating drug trafficking due to its constant contact and cooperation with the US.

Naming Costa Rica as a major port of transit for narcotics in the 2015 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report ensures the US, along with several other countries, will continue to pour aid into Costa Rica to combat drug trafficking.  But I find it hard to believe that some of the drugs do not find their way into Costa Rica for public consumption.  Not a single person of the dozen of asked have heard of crystal meth, or methamphetamine.  But they have heard of cocaine, marijuana and mushrooms.  Moreover, in Obama’s 2015 report, he specifically mentions that synthetic drugs are not a problem in Costa Rica.

My Spanish teacher today, a Tica, told me that drugs are a very real problem in the poorer parts of the country, especially in the capital of San Jose.  Twenty percent of Ticos’ income falls below the poverty line.  But something is amiss here.  The US is the world’s largest consumer of cocaine and drugs coming from South and Central America.  The US is also the 7th richest country in the whole world.  (Qatar and Luxembourg greatly outrank the US; the US closely follows Singapore, Norway, Brunei and Hong Kong.)

I’m not buying this poverty equals drug use business since the US is extraordinarily wealthy and its citizens are the biggest drug users.  I think it has something to do with the phenomenon of the Costa Ricans being the happiest people on Earth.  US citizens rank 16th on the happiness scale.  So clearly, money and happiness are not related since Americans make four times as much as Costa Ricans.  Do North Americans use drugs to feel happy?  What about the factors that sociologists determined may be making Costa Ricans happy?  They are greatly in touch with the beauty of nature, they leave a small ecological footprint, they are very close with their family and friends and they help others.  Perhaps if US residents did these things they would not need so many drugs to change their realities.  Perhaps a sunset would stave off the need for a line of coke.  Perhaps coffee with a friend  and strengthening relationships in the community would lessen the scourge of meth in US towns.  I do not know the answer.

But it is a riddle to me that the richest country in the world also consumes the most mind-altering drugs and is one of the least happy countries in the developed world.  And because of that we are responsible for the rise of drug cartels throughout South America and Mexico and the murders of thousands of people.  Our military fights in South and Central America and Mexico to keep drugs out of the US.  Meanwhile, the drug cartels murder each other and innocent people to keep the supply going.  The best thing that is happening in the US is the legalization of marijuana.  The cartels watched demand dwindle.  But now the cartels are turning to heroin and Mexico is the biggest maker of crystal meth.  As long as there is a demand, they will keep supplying, and people will keep fleeing from the outrageous murder rates created by the drug wars in Honduras and other Central American countries, mostly trying to get to the US.

I continue to be fascinated by a country with no military, the happiest people on earth, the lowest homicide rate in Central America and four times less the GDP than the US.  As I ponder these questions, and the many ironies they pose, I am watching surfers catching waves in the aqua green water, touched by a half-moon  sandy beach with palm tree hills on both ends of the moon tips.  I will ride my bicycle home soon to catch the puesta del sol with the other Ticos.  I cannot see the sunset from here since I am facing south towards South America.  I understand I’m sure to see cat and mouse games with US helicopters and drug runners, but I haven’t seen that yet.  I will be sad when I do.  I never really thought about how all the drugs get into the US and how many people die.  I do not use them, but I will think of illegal drugs differently.  What if the drug war was one less war we had to fight?  The problem is, of course, the demand.



Freedom is Being Unencumbered by Non-Essentials

IMG_0492After my first full day in Sámara, it is clear to me that Ticos do not have a lot of material things. By itself, that may not be surprising, since it is, after all, a third world country. However, Costa Rica is ranked number one in the world using the Happy Planet Index, after considering the experienced level of well-being of Costa Ricans, their life expectancy, and the country’s ecological footprint. In another study, Costa Rican students were surveyed and of other students surveyed, again, Costa Rica has the happiest people. This is true even though the USA’s GDP is four times greater than Costa Rica’s. The USA ranked 16th in subjective happiness. It’s not all about stuff. The authors of the second study suggest that having strong familial bonds and friendships are critical, and feeling like your government is predictable also relates to happiness. (Russia and Egypt are at the bottom of the happiness scale.)

So the way the Ticos seem to live, observing them at work in restaurants for example as they goof around with each other, coupled with their small homes with satellite dishes on top and according to Eugenia, my driver, flat screen TV’s inside, shows interpersonal relationships are more important than having big houses and fancy cars. In the US, we work very long hours to afford lots of stuff, leaving little time to cultivate relationships with our existing friends, much less make new friends.

It is my experience that while working, it is extremely difficult to maintain friendships I have had for a long time. As work has slowed down, it’s getting easier to find time for coffee with old friends. It is also very difficult to find new friends. To find new friends means trying new things like studying Spanish. I stick my neck out there and go to Spanish-speaking “meet ups” I find on the internet. Some groups are friendlier than others but I’ve been able to see a few people regularly and make some acquaintances.

All of this has made me wonder about the Millennials, kids born between around 1982 and 2004. According to research by Goldman Sachs, this generation is putting off home buying and car purchasing, opting for renting their homes and ride sharing services such as Uber. Some of this is probably by necessity since they may be saddled with high student loans as the highest educated generation in history. But I wonder if they feel more freedom without the responsibilities of home ownership and car maintenance? Does this give them more time for their friends, decreasing loneliness and theoretically increasing happiness?

Here in Costa Rica there is a lot more time for family and friends without stressful jobs that bring in lots of dough to buy lots of things but that make the US the 16th happiest nation. Would I trade my Mercedes to be happier? Does freedom from the burden of material things equate to greater happiness?