This past spring break, I went to the beautiful country of Costa Rica. Costa Rica was the place that I dreamed about for years. There would be nights I would lay awake thinking about how incredible it would be to see La Fortuna, to hike a volcano, and to see monkeys jumping from the trees. I imagined every moment of this trip and thought about how badly I wanted to be there. Then, by the generosity of Matt’s parents, he and I were finally able to take that dream trip.
He talked about how incredible it would be surf the waves of Costa Rica, and I talked incessantly about all the animals, hanging bridges, and waterfalls we would see. When the day finally came, we went there in search of adventure, delicious cocktails, beaches, and sunshine. And trust me, we got all of that. But what I wasn’t expecting from this vacation, was that I would leave having learned a very valuable lesson.
What I saw on this trip (aside from all the exotic wildlife and landscapes) was the poverty. Please excuse my previous ignorance, but what slipped my mind through all my fantasies of this trip and the preparation for travel, was that Costa Rica is still a third world country. A quick Google search will show you that the poverty level in Costa Rica is at a record high. Over 21% of its citizens are living in poverty – that’s over one million people. And 10-12% live in extreme poverty, meaning they have a severe lack of food, clean drinking water, education, health care, and shelter. In some areas of Costa Rica, the poverty levels are as high as 30%! But what is even more shocking, is that even though the poverty rate is this high, the country actually has the lowest poverty rate in all of Central America. 10-12% of the population living in extreme poverty is low?
I noticed the poverty while driving through Costa Rica from city to city. I was able to see with my own eyes just how little the Ticos had. The poverty is noticeable just by looking at the houses that were broken down shacks, no larger than my bedroom. Going from a gated community in suburbia to seeing homes that looked uninhabitable makes one pretty self-reflective. It was the definition of culture shock. But even though I could see what little all of the locals had, I never met complete strangers that were so wonderful to be around, so pleasant, and so polite.
You may have heard of the phrase “Pura Vida” before which means “simple life” or “pure life.” It actually came to the country of Costa Rica from a Mexican movie, ¡Pura Vida!, in the 1950s. The Costa Ricans liked this phrase that symbolized eternal optimism, and it stuck. Now it’s a phrase that’s spoken in every town and in every household across the country. If you’ve ever been to Costa Rica, then you know that the words Pura Vida ring through every street, store, home, cafe, and restaurant. I’ve heard the phrase many times before, and I knew what it meant, but I never personally met anyone who embodied it. But it Costa Rica, every person I came across greeted me with a warm smile, asked how I was, seemed genuinely interested in getting to know me, and always said goodbye with a heartfelt “Pura Vida.”
Pure Vida is not just some popular saying, in Costa Rica, it’s a way of life. It’s the idea that life is wonderful and we should be happy just to be alive. The idea that you could live in a tiny little hole in the wall but be perfectly content with the smallest pleasures in life. Small pleasures like laughing with a friend, spending the day on the beach, being around family, or sharing a drink with someone. It’s the idea that happiness comes from within, not with earthly goods and services.
I’m sharing this today because it’s a phrase that’s worth incorporating more in our one culture. In America, at least in the areas where I have lived, there’s a completely opposite mindset. Americans tend to view happiness as an end goal, as something that needs to be achieved through hard work, promotions, lots of money, and luxury. And although we conceptually understand that “happiness is not a destination, it’s a way of life,” we act very differently. Most people, myself included, try to find happiness outside of ourselves. People tend to think that happiness can be achieved if we only went and bought that handbag, had more social media followers, had a nicer house, had a more expensive car, bought Starbucks every day, had the latest iPhone, an Apple watch… you get the idea.
And I think that this could be why there are so many self-help books and blogs floating around today. People go on this life-long search for happiness, only to realize that it’s not achievable by money and possessions or popularity, so they go looking for advice. Did you know that Costa Rica is was named one of the happiest countries in the world? And I doubt many of them have picked up a self-help book.
That being said, what do we do about this? How do we embrace Pura Vida into our lives?
Step One: Go to Costa Rica (not really, but just humor me for a second)
I had always understood what Pura Vida meant, but I can honestly say that I didn’t quite grasp the meaning until I traveled to Costa Rica and saw it for myself. I didn’t really get it until I saw the homes that people lived in… the same people that drove us around, took us on adventures through the rainforest and brought us coconuts on the beach. That’s eye-opening.
I believe with my whole heart that it’s lessons like this that make traveling so important. It’s incredibly easy to get wrapped up in our own little world – staying in the same town, reading the same news sources, shopping at the same stores, going to work every day, and getting caught up in our little projects like redecorating or baking gluten-free cookies… It’s easy to forget what’s going on in the world outside of yourself. That there are people who live with far less than many of us do, but live with such happiness and gratitude.
Of course, not everyone could afford to travel at the drop of the hat. The idea is to not get so caught up in what’s directly in front of you. Read different news sources, listen to new podcasts, watch documentaries, reach books, and get an idea of what’s happening in the world so you will be more grateful for all of the blessings that you have instead of being caught up in work, daily dramas, and social media.
Step Two: Simplify your life in a way that makes sense for you.
I see thousands of bloggers that preach about simplifying and becoming a minimalist. But let’s be realistic, not everyone is going to read a blog post and decide to sell all their possessions and move into a tiny house. That doesn’t work for everyone. In order to simply, you don’t have to do anything crazy. You can start by decluttering the house, turning off all the notifications on your phone, or taking a personal day. It could even mean learning saying “no” to people or getting rid of toxic friendships. Whatever works for you personally to turn off the “noise” of everyday life and ground yourself. When I started to simplify it meant spending less time consumed by my technology and more time spent pursuing my hobbies and passions.
There is both physical clutter that we keep in our lives that take up space and drain us, and then there is the mental clutter. I don’t need to tell you that the mental clutter is much more exhausting. It’s incredible all of the bullsh*t that consumes our time. Emails, text messages, notifications, meetings, lunch dates, errands, cleaning, etc. I didn’t see any of the Costa Ricans getting anxious about their email inbox while I was there! So find a way to simplify so there’s more time for joy, passion, love and happiness, and less time spent on the meaningless tasks that fill up the day.
Step Three: Find ways to add gratitude into your life
There are hundreds of researchers now that have proven in their studies that people who express gratitude daily are happier people, have a greater sense of life satisfaction, are physically healthier, and have better relationships. If you really want to read the science go for it, but I think those researchers may have been wasting their time. Anyone that embodies the “Pura Vida” mentality knows that already.
I know that for at least us Americans it can be very hard to start thinking every day about the things we’re grateful for it. Simply because it’s difficult to change our mindsets from all of the things we have to do throughout the day and reflect on what we’re happy about. Many won’t do it because it doesn’t feel productive. But if you regularly think about the things you are grateful for, or regularly talk about them or write about them, it becomes a habit. This habit will ultimately lead to a happier life. One way that I focus on gratitude, is every night before bed I write in detail about something I’m grateful for that day. It’s usually about a paragraph long, and it only takes five minutes. By ending the day focusing on something that makes me feel really happy and grateful, it reminds me how lucky I am all the time. It brings my attention to the more meaningful relationships and experiences in my life instead of on the mundane. That pure life mentality doesn’t come naturally to me, so writing is how I began to introduce it into my life.
Step Four: Fill your time doing what makes you feel great
This may seem like a simple or cliche piece of advice to adopting a more grateful mindset and embracing Pura Vida, but hear me out. Most people that I know settle in dozens of little moments throughout the day for things that are good enough, rather than what makes them feel energized and alive. Most people I know are so focused on how “busy” they are that they forget about how they’re feeling. They might put up a piece of artwork because it was inexpensive at Marshalls, go to a job they hate so they can pay the bills, read a book that they have to finish just because they started it, or listen to a radio station just because it’s on.
Millions of people live their daily lives like this. Then what happens is at the end of the week or at the end of they feel exhausted and unhappy. This causes them to go out and drink all night, online shop all day, sleep for twelve hours, binge-watch Netflix, eat a whole can of Pringles, etc. This I think is the real difference between my culture, and theirs. Our mentality is different which then causes people to search for happiness in outside objects and entertainment.
There are a million ways to change this, but it’s about what works for you. Instead of searching out comfort in food, work, shopping, Netflix, etc. find happiness in the people in your life and whatever genuinely makes you feel good. When I decided to make this change, I surrounded myself with things that made me feel happy was to call good friends on the phone, spending my free time working on hobbies, picking out music that made me feel inspired, exercising and eating better, listening to motivational speeches, and more. I do anything and everything that now adds real happiness, comfort, and gratitude. Don’t just settle for what’s good enough, go out of your way to surround yourself with the activities and people that make you feel wonderful.
Have you ever been to Costa Rica and come back with the same lesson, or did you have a different experience? What do you do to adopt the Pura Vida mentality in your life? How did you simplifying your life? And do you have any gratitude ritual of your own that helped? Let me know in the comments!