But when my alarm goes off a few hours later, I open the wooden shutters to my terrace and am rewarded with one of the most cinematic vistas I've ever seen: deep turquoise waves lapping gently at a sandy shore, lush green flora encircling a majestic bay, and a pair of capuchin monkeys leaping from tree to tree. All that was missing was a cute guy strolling down the beach, clad with a surfboard and man bun. (Plenty of those guys would come later, thankfully.)
With a landscape like this, of course Costa Rica is one of the happiest countries in the world, I think to myself, sliding open the terrace doors and inhaling the already humid morning air.
Sure, that characterization is overly simplistic, but Costa Rica actually has been named the happiest country worldwide in the Happy Planet Index several times since 2009, ranking higher in the than the United States and United Kingdom in terms of lifespan (79.1 years) and life satisfaction (10th out of 140 countries). Gallup also gave Costa Rica high marks in its 2016 World Happiness Rankings, rating the country significantly higher than any other South or Central American nation and several percentage points ahead of the USA and UK. As if those honors weren't enough, the country's also home to Nicoya, one of five original Blue Zones cities, where people are known to live unusually long, healthy, and happy lives.
There's even a national motto that sums up the uniquely joyful Costa Rican spirit: pura vida, meaning "the good life." People use it as a greeting and as an expression of gratitude or contentment, but beyond that, it encapsulates an entire lifestyle—one that's the complete opposite of the burnout-laced culture that's become status quo in the States.
"'Pura vida' means many things…It means life is pure. It means everything is well." —Heriberto Peña, Four Seasons Costa Rica health and wellness ambassador
"'Pura vida' means many things," says Heriberto "Beto" Peña, Health and Wellness Ambassador at Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo, where I stay during my visit. "It means you're grounded, you're happy, you know who you are. You're submerged in nature. It means life is pure. It means everything is well."
Within a few hours, I'm feeling the pura vida vibes in a major way, and they only intensify as my week in the country continues. Yes, may be in part because my itinerary is packed with water sports, sound-healing sessions, Ayurvedic spa treatments, and meditation, but those weren't the only reasons. I made it my mission to learn the source of the pura vida magic from the locals in order to enact the knowledge and replicate the effects back home in Los Angeles. Here are a few of the things I learned and have begun to implement in my day-to-day life.
4 simple ways to harness the pura vida lifestyle and access more happiness.
1. Go to bed early and wake up for the sunrise
Costa Rica's close to the equator, which means the days are relatively short—the sun rises between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. and sets between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. year-round. Peña tells me that most people go to bed before 10 p.m. so they can rise with the sun and make the most of their daylight hours. "For us, it's really important to see the sunrise and the sunset. We wake up and do morning workouts—where I live, you can see a lot of people doing their workout in front of the beach, seeing the colors of the morning."
I won't lie; it wasn't easy to wake up for 6 a.m. yoga classes during my visit, even though they did come with some spectacular ocean views. But I did it, and have been trying to stick with that schedule at home. As a result, my mornings feel less manic and more spacious. Yes, it means I no longer stay up until 1 a.m. re-watching old episodes of '90s TV—bu those simply aren't a key ingredient in the pura vida lifestyle.
2. Eat simply
There are many amazing restaurants on Peninsula Papagayo, but I ordering the same thing at all of them—a vegetarian casado, or a traditional plate consisting of rice, beans, grilled vegetables, plantains, and tortillas. The back-to-basics simplicity to this approach was especially refreshing, and, according to Peña, one of the reasons he believes Costa Ricans stay healthy well into old age.
"People in Costa Rica don't mix a lot of things," he says. "The basic breakfast after our workout is rice, beans, eggs, and sour cream. Lunch is made with rice, beans, salad, vegetables, and chicken, fish, pork, or beef. Mostly, the dinners are vegetarian—Costa Rican families don't normally have meat at night." He says meals like these are easy to digest, and anecdotally, I found to be true.
Another benefit of this food outlook? I've noticed since implementing it in my real life that it's simplifying my meals in terms of money I'm spending on ingredients and time spent prepping meals. And that's added up to less all-around stress.
3. Spend time in nature
Confession: Even though I live across the street from the beach, I sometimes go weeks without putting my feet in the sand. None of the born-and-bred Costa Ricans I met took their lush surroundings for granted—all of the them told me that in their spare time, they prioritize time spent outdoors.
This is good for mental health, as Peña points out to me, but it's also a win for creativity. Karen Arceyuth, head mixologist at Four Seasons Costa Rica's Nemare restaurant, uses nature as inspiration for her fanciful cocktails. Take the "Monteverde," for example—made with absinthe, lemongrass Guaro Cacique (a rum-like Costa Rican liquor), lime juice, and fresh mint and coriander leaves. It's an homage to the country's Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and its dizzying array of plant and animal life.
So if you, like me, often think you're too busy to take a walk around your neighborhood, you might want to reframe your perspective of productivity to one that's more pura vida-friendly. The eventual results of brilliance may surprise you.
4. Prioritize people
Not only is social connection crucial for mental health, but it can also help us ward off a number of physical diseases. And when I asked locals what they do when they're off the clock, every single one said that they spend time with family (or friends who are like family, if their birth family lives far away). It leads me to think that this is the key reason Costa Rica ranks so highly in terms of longevity and happiness.
"At night, we are always with family, which gives us that warm feeling that we need," says Peña. His family lives in the central part of Costa Rica, a six hour drive away, but that doesn't stop him from visiting them whenever he has a chance. "I need that love coming from them to make me feel grounded," he says, noting that the calm he feels from family time can't be replicated by his yoga or meditation practice.
There's also a broader sense of community that's nearly palpable in Costa Rica. Four Seasons guests have the opportunity to spend time volunteering in the surrounding towns, and I visited a local school with Peña to do yoga and share healthy snacks with kindergarten-age kids. Trite as it may sound, by the end of the morning I felt like everyone I met was part of my extended family. Both the teachers and students were so welcoming and present, greeting our group with hugs and big smiles and their contagious pura vida spirit.
Their warmth was a huge contrast to my arrival back in LA, when my Lyft driver barely even acknowledged me as I climbed into the car. That exchange filled me with even more urgent determination to sprinkle a bit of that legendary pura vida energy wherever I go.
My next visit to Costa Rica will definitely include a road trip, and I'll be taking these car stretches along for the ride. Costa Rica would also make a great honeymoon destination, even though that concept is evolving in a big way.
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