Is Costa Rica Even the Happiest Country in Latin America?

No. Let me follow up on yesterday’s post, with more data testing Nicholas Kristof‘s assertion that Costa Rica is the happiest nation in the world.

Unfortunately, the data that Kristof was citing weren’t actually measures of happiness. Instead, Kristof analyzed data on life satisfaction. As we saw, data from the same survey analyzing where respondents perceive themselves to stand on “the ladder of life,” led Costa Rica to fall from the number-one spot to equal 19th. But neither of these is actually a measure of “happiness.”

Fortunately, the good folks at the LatinBarometer just sent me the latest data from their 2008 poll. This poll does measure happiness. And it turns out that Costa Rica is not even the happiest country in Latin America. I’ve summarized these data in the graph below.


There are different ways of ranking these 18 nations. If we are looking at the proportion “very happy,” Costa Rica ranks seventh, behind Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, El Salvador, and Honduras. Focusing on the proportion who are “quite happy” or “very happy,” Costa Rica pulls ahead of El Salvador and Honduras, but behind Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, and so ranks equal eighth of eighteen, equal with Panama. My preferred ordering is based on an ordered probit regression on country fixed effects, which puts Costa Rica fifth. (This is the ordering I used in the graph.)

Unfortunately for Kristof’s hypothesis, there’s no way to look at the available data and see Costa Rica as the happiest nation even in Latin America.

Mark S

Can you give any pointers on where to find out what an "ordered probit regression on country fixed effects" might be?


Tell us more about the origin of the data.

In Spanish language in Mexico if you ask someone "(son) usted feliz" or "(tu) estas feliz" OR "cuan feliz son usted" etc. only a very impolite Mexican or someone really peed off in the moment would return a less than positive reply.

It's the culture ... something that you economists aren't too familiar with.

Out of a population of over 100 million in Mexico only 12 million have jobs in the formal economy ... and the country's largest employer is WalMart ... how could Mexicans really be "happy"?

Brazil Nut

A cursory look at the graph indicates, to me, that Brazil should be at the top as it has the fewest, by percentage, unhappy citizens.


But the conclusion supported by the data you present doesn't fit the political point that Kristof was trying to make.


None of this is measuring happiness in any meaningful way, as I see it. To do this by taking a survey is akin to taking a measure of wealth by asking people how rich they feel.

Earlier commenters have already noted there may be cultural differences in the way questions are answered - or even linguistic difference in what the questions actually mean.

What you're trying to measure is a psychological state. Find a way to objectively measure it directly without effecting the results, then I might be interested in the study.


What are the questions included in the poll ....if it was asked to people whether they are happy or un-happy then I guess they are again judging there position in the ladder..similar to what you had pointed out yesterday


@2 has it dead on. Latin American countries are always near the top of the list internationally but I'm almost certain it's a cultural tendency to answer that question, 'yes'. Brazil being an outlier supports this because it's very culturally different from Spanish-speaking countries, perhaps even more likely to say 'yes' to whatever Portuguese word is being used.

Furthermore, the responses really don't look very different. Just looking at 'not very happy' rates, it looks like most places are very similar, wtih a few Central American countries being worse than average, and Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru being very bad.

All in all, it just looks to me like Costa Rica may be close to ceiling on this poll.


@Esteban Maybe in Mexican culture the correlation of unemployment and happiness isn't as negative as in other cultures.

What do you know about the other cultures of these countries on the list? Is Mexico the only one that would over-report happiness?

Is it impossible to be happy AND work at WalMart?

What's the most similar country to Mexico on this list in terms of your measure of happiness (unemployment in non-walmart-formal-jobs)?

Saying "economists don't know what culture is" isn't a better analysis than the one offered here.


This is like asking a beggar if he has enough food, money, clothes, etc. and then reporting that "90% of beggars are not happy with what they get."

Happiness is more a goal than a realization. Ask the same people if they would like to be happier next year and see what I mean.


As a market researcher who deals with these kinds of surveys all the time, I can tell you that cultural differences could have a major effect on people's self-reported data. Although this data could be used as a piece of the puzzle, I would tend to be more swayed by objective measures such as relative income, educational and job opportunities, and free time.

Also, to an earlier poster's point, if the purpose of saying that Costa Rica is the happiest place in the world is to measure whether a person living elsewhere might be happier if they lived there, you would need totally different measures altogether.

Tim H

In 3-5 years this "happiness metrics" fad will be seen as quaint. We do need better indicators of well-being than GDP/PPP and the like, but this isn't the solution.


Perhaps Mexico and Guatemala score best because of proximity to the United States. Mexicans who are unhappy there can just walk across the border, and Guatemalans have it almost as easy. Those who remain, on average, will be happier than those who left.


Questions in Spanish are: Es usted feliz? (singular) Son ustedes felices? (plural)

The people who base happiness on economic facts probably can't be really happy. About the mexican example Esteban means they can't be happy because they don't have great job opportunities, so maybe most of them have humble jobs but they have friends and family and they get love and care from them... on sometimes there are things more important than money, this is the reason why most of the poor people is more happy than rich people, because real important things in life you can't pay for...


The measurements presented here and in the last post are all interesting, but to quibble with metrics on something as nebulous as happiness is wrongheaded.

Sure, to avow that Costa Rica is the happiest country on earth is bogus (and I don't think that was the grand point of Kristof's article). But by the same token, to say that Costa Rica is not the happiest country on earth is also bogus. Simply looking at the numbers, what is the margin of error for these estimates?


This debate is growing considerably more inane with every post/retort. I wish it would stop.

Isn't it understood that a "Happiness Index" is almost entirely subjective and any quantifiable "results" are derived only from criteria created by those that conducted the "studies"?

If I determined happiness to be people wearing blue socks, I could find the country with the population that wears the most blue socks and deem them the happiest.

In the "Happy Planet Index" that anointed Costa Rica the "happiest", much emphasis was weighted on "green" practices and a minimal environmental footprint. Costa Rica is in Central America, where the landscapes are very, very green. Thus, based on the criteria established by the Happy Planet Index, most Central American countries, including Honduras, which was throttled by a military coup of their President in 2009, are the "happiest".

As for Wolfers assertion that the LatinBarometer "does measure happiness" followed by a Microsoft Paint worthy bar graph to reinforce his claim, well, frankly this disappoints me, or should I say, makes me "unhappy". I feel this way because I just read a claim from a "reporter" from the world's leading news outlet who is unable to discern a subjective poll and deem it what it truly is: meaningless fluff. But thanks for the nifty bar graphic.

Here is a story done by a Costa Rican newspaper about "happiness" when the index was released, back in July.

This reporter seemed to see through the garbage of quantifying happiness.



Ditto & Amem to Francisco....and Esteban...being a official "GRINGA" somehow my sister and I are BOTH married to latinos, THANK GOD! She married a Mexican and I am married to a amazing Colombian. She lives in Oregon, I live in NY...With our father the all american (border line racist) and our mother a liberal from London...We experienced other cultures in the "Anglo speaking" world and its all misery! They don't even know the beginnings of the concepts of
happiness" As all the Latinos I know "know"....the Anglos, Gringos, & Blanquitos, are neurotic, mental and miserable, except a few here and there....and all my Latin friends "know" how happy they are compared to the crazies up North...Even the French and Romanians know, being they are latin too....Its an instinct.
Thanks god I met a married a Colombian and had many latin friends and was able to travel the world and meet "happy" people to understand what that means at a young age.

Happiness is internal and not PURCHASED via Walmart or Sam's Club along with the new flat screen.


Alvaro Fernandez

Nicholas Kristof disregarded the data in order to introduce his agenda. By the way, Costa Rica and Guatemala couldn't be more dissimilar. Kristof's spin is not applicable to Guatemala.

We Latin Americans are more friendly, friends are like family , weather is great year round and it doesn't matter how dire the circumstances we laugh it off.

Guatemala rocks!

Como se podran imaginar, soy chapín ?y qué!


I don't really know for sure wether or not Costa Rica has the happiest people in Latin America. What I know for sure is that most of us are caring people that treat others with respect and dignity.
We don't have an army, and costa ricans in general are not violent people. We always have a smile, and enjoy spending time with our families and friends as much as we can.
Our country's weather and colourful summers reflect on people's personalities (warm and nice).
We love to help people, and enjoy the little things that life has to offer. Money may be important, but is not the most important aspect, love and respect are, and where there is love and respect, there is happiness.
I invite you to visit a town called San Ramon in the province of Alajuela for one week, see how people live, and how happy they look, maybe you change your mind.

Susana Cascante

Daudi Msseemmaa

Kristof quoted data that said Togo and Tanzania had the least happy people on Earth with a rating of 2.6 out of 10. When in the same World Database of Happiness survey people self-assessed their happiness, Tanzanians self-rated their happiness at 8.2. The second number makes me happier.

Other indicators of happiness are less important than how a person rates his own happiness.


The whole premise of your happiness index is flawed because you are linking it to countries. Countries are political borders many times. Politics and discussions thereof make a couple of lawyers happy, but usually causes division which is long and tedious and frowned upon in the third grade by most. Countries are not always tribal or familial or even geographical areas solving hunger problems anymore. Although they can be.

it is just wrong. it will never work. well, maybe in 12th- 14th century north america, but that time is long gone.