(HUFFPOST) Every Sunday, when his health allows, 100-year-old Francisco Gómez gets a ride from his daughter to the outskirts of town, where he spends the day at a community center dancing.
Gómez, a farmer and rancher on Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, grew up listening to ranch-style music, but said he didn’t really learn to dance until he started attending these weekly gatherings for the elderly and their caretakers. He says the dances have given him something to look forward to since the death of his wife earlier this year.
“I’m much happier,” he told HuffPost. “It gives me something to do other than sit around all day.”
The dances are just one of the activities coordinated by Progressive Attention Network for Integral Elder Care, a program created by the country’s Health Ministry in 2010 to help elderly people stay active and socially engaged. Though the network spans Costa Rica, it is particularly robust on Nicoya, a peninsula on the country’s Pacific coast that is among five world regions known as blue zones, where people live the longest.
The reasons for Nicoyans’ longevity are not fully understood, but researchers from National Geographic identified high levels of spirituality, a strong cultural base and close social relationships as ingredients in the peninsula’s recipe for a long life. Dr. Zinnia Cordero, director of the Health Ministry in Nicoya, said programs like the care network allow the ministry to help foster these less-tangible health benefits among the area’s elderly population.
“It’s about helping people maintain the desire to keep living,” Cordero said. “Protecting these health factors isn’t only a priority of individuals, it’s a priority of the government.”
The well-being of seniors is now seen as so important that newly elected Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado declared the betterment of the lives of the elderly as a political priority. Last month, during a tour of Nicoya, Alvarado met with Gómez and 14 other older Nicoyans to discuss how the government can do more to improve their lives.
Alvarado, who took office in May, comes from a long line of Costa Rican leaders who have made the well-being of citizens a government imperative. Since the mid-20th century, Costa Rica has had public health care to which all Costa Ricans have access, along with free and compulsory primary and secondary education. It is the only country in Central America where 100 percent of the population has access to electricity.
This government strategy seems to have paid off, and Costa Rica continuously ranks as one of the happiest places on earth. In the 2018 Gallup World Poll ― a standard for measuring self-reported happiness ― people all over the world were asked to rank their life satisfaction from 0 to 10. Costa Rica’s average score was 7.07 ― 13th in the world and the highest in Latin America.
The countries at the top of the happiness scale are relatively wealthy; Costa Rica is a notable exception. It has the highest levels of self-reported well-being of any middle-income country, and carries more happiness per GDP dollar. The country’s GDP per capita is $11,630, compared with $59,531 in the U.S., which lags behind Costa Rica in happiness.
“Costa Rica tells us that there is something beyond money that is important,” said Mariano Rojas, a happiness expert from Costa Rica and an economics professor at the Latin American Social Sciences Institute. “There is a difference between the quantity of money you have and the way you use it. There is a way to spend money that contributes to the happiness of the people.”
In 1948, Costa Rica abolished its military, rededicating its defense budget to education, health and pensions. Even as new administrations have come and gone, this basic budgeting tenet has remained intact. In 2016, Costa Rica spent more on education as a proportion of GDP than any country except one, according to data from the World Bank.
The country has a life expectancy of 81, according to the Costa Rican Health Ministry (The World Health Organization put it at around 79.6 in 2016). This is higher than some wealthy countries such as the U.S., for example, which has a life expectancy of 78.6 and has seen a decline over the last two years.
“Our high life expectancy is a reflection of the decisions we’ve made as a country,” Cordero said. “Through our social security administration, we were able to strengthen health care for our entire population, regardless of their social or economic condition.”
Costa Ricans in even the most rural parts of the country have access to preventative and emergency care through an extensive system of health clinics. Because even the poorest Costa Ricans can access these primary care clinics, one 2016 study found that Costa Ricans lower on the socioeconomic scale had a significantly lower mortality rate than people of similar status in the U.S.
Though Costa Rica has a high level of wealth inequality, universal access to social services means that Costa Ricans tend not to experience unequal treatment in other areas of their lives, especially health care.
“The money you have does not make a difference in how people treat you,” Rojas said. “This is interesting because it implies that there is no status race like in other countries, where you may need to buy a larger house or a nicer car in order to gain status.”
Instead, Costa Ricans put more value on personal relationships than almost any other culture, Rojas said. Costa Ricans tend to spend more time with their families than people in other countries, she said, and in the Gallup World Poll, more than 85 percent of Costa Ricans reported feeling love and affection every day.
But not every aspect of happiness can be measured. Many Costa Ricans use the phrase pura vida to talk about what makes life so satisfying. The idiom literally translates to pure life, but refers to the laid-back and peaceful lifestyle that Costa Rica has become known for.
When asked what about the senior dances is so gratifying, Gómez laughs, then answered: “Es muy ‘pura vida.’”
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