Julie Santos So upon going back to Costa Rica, we had people over for coffee. Costa Ricans have coffee every day around three o’clock in the afternoon, and we invited some friends over for coffee. And, they came over to our house and my parents had bought fresh bread and the bread was warm. And, they flipped out. I mean, they were like, “Oh my God, the bread is warm! It’s so good!” And then my mom had butter and there were like, “Butter!” And then we had sour cream and there were like, “Natilla! Ay, Dios Mío!” And it was like the thing, right? It was just this magical moment because clearly the expectations—it’s not like we offered them something that they couldn’t afford or that they hadn’t seen before. It was that they just showed up for coffee, you know.
They weren’t setting their expectations on like the worst coffee ever, but they also weren’t expecting anything more than coffee. And then when we offered them more than coffee, it was not only like—not only were my expectations not bread, but also the gratitude around the additional aspect of bread and that, you know, that sets the tone. I mean, my parents won in that moment. They’re like, “Yeah, we’re the best hosts ever”, right? And then, they’re stoked. They’re getting bread. And then, the conversation after that is just so light. And I noticed that that whole summer, it was like every little thing that happened above the expected was welcomed with celebration.
Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner and welcome to The Science of Happiness.
Our guest today, Julie Santos, was born in Costa Rica and raised in Southern California. And over the past two decades, her home country has been ranked the happiest country in Latin America by the UN’s World Happiness Report. She wanted to know why. So she went back to investigate. She found that it had to do with our expectations and that’s what we’re exploring today. We’ll hear from Julie and also Yale psychologist Robb Rutledge about how certain kinds of expectations activate dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps us feel pleasure.
More after this break.
I’m Dacher Keltner. Welcome back to The Science of Happiness.
A few years ago, Julie Santos went back to Costa Rica to find out why her home country is rated one of the happiest.
She found that it was linked to our expectations—whether they’re high, low, or if we have none at all. Julie, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
Julie Santos Thanks for having me.
Dacher Keltner You know, I teach the results of the happiness reports across the world, and Costa Rica is one of these countries that always comes out on top. What was going on in your life that led you to return to Costa Rica?
Julie Santos I was born there but spent all my summers there as a kid. And when I was in my early 20s, people would just, you know, ask me about it. I was 21 actually—I had just graduated college—and I was, you know, the whole searching, soul searching: “What’s going to make you happy?” I went back to Costa Rica with that conversation in my head. So I went and really started thinking about what makes people happy here. And first, there’s the basic life structures, right? So there’s the democracy, there’s universal health care. For the most part, people aren’t starving. Strong middle class, and middle class looks very different than in America. I mean, we’re talking small homes, multigenerational households, three bedrooms kind of thing.
So upon going back to Costa Rica and really taking a moment and saying, “You know what? What is that? What is it?” I started analyzing the day to day. And, one of the moments that was most striking, when I said “Aha, this might be something,” is: we had people over for coffee and my parents had bought fresh bread and the bread was warm. And, they flipped out.
And I remember this moment I was thinking, “God, this would never happen in the states.” You know, like at least in my experience, like no one would flip out over natilla and pan. It’s, like, not a thing. And then I asked my mom’s friend. I said, “Why are you so…I’m just curious. You’re so excited. Like, what is the excitement about?” And she was like, “Well, the bread, of course. It’s warm and there’s natilla—natilla is sour cream—and she started saying all the things. And I said, “Yeah, well, like, this is normal.” And she goes, “Yeah, but you know, they invited me for coffee. I wasn’t expecting like bread.”
And I noticed that that whole summer, it was noted also, it was always noted, you know, there was a moment of kind of like, “Oh my god, this is—I just want to note this moment. It surpasses my expectations,” and everyone duly notes it. And then we carry on. I think it’s just that—just this kind of appreciation for the basics.
Dacher Keltner And also, you know, it’s such a deep lesson for us to be thinking about with respect to the science of happiness is it can lead to these expectations that undermine the experience. And you’re saying something different, which is, you know, move through each day without a lot of expectations. And there’s great research showing, you know, when we win things that we didn’t expect, we get a bigger burst of happiness. And I’m curious, how else did you see this kind of philosophy of the right kind of expectations in Costa Rica in your travels?
Julie Santos Waiting in line, people don’t really have an expectation around how long something should take. So, I mean, you can always spot the American from a mile away because they’re huffing and puffing in the line. And everyone else is just chilling. You know, they’re just waiting. They’re hanging out, you know, there’s that whole idea of patience is a muscle, right? So they’re like—they have that muscle well developed.
Dacher Keltner One of the interesting developments in the science of happiness is the cultural lens and one of my favorite examples is this new work by Belinda Campos on sympatia—that there’s this just pure warmth in LatinX or Mexican-American culture that’s part of their resilience. And you’re talking about a different dimension to Costa Rican culture, of kind of these modest expectations. You see it in other happy countries. You know, Denmark has this Law of Junte, which is about not expecting too much success. Sweden has this interesting principle, lagom, which means, not too much or too little, just the right amount. How would you, if you were to say like “This is the core principle from Costa Rica that helps us with happiness,” what would you say it is? How would you describe it?
Julie Santos Well, anyone who’s visited Costa Rica knows Pura Vida, you know. Pura Vida means pure life.
Dacher Keltner And what do you mean by that: pure life?
Julie Santos It just means—so essentially, nothing is better than life. Like, it’s life. You’re alive, you’re here, you’re present. You’re having this human experience. So when it’s pure life, it’s like: it is just living and it goes back to that expectation of “Enough is enough.” So it’s pure life, meaning you’re just living. And that in itself is the expectation of the most high, right, is that we are present before each other doing this thing, whatever it is. And Ticos, I mean, we say Pura Vida for everything. We say Pura Vida for “Yes, no, maybe. Thank you. How are you? Goodbye.” I mean, it’s all Pura Vida and I always joke. I used to be a Spanish teacher and I said as a joke, “Well, if you go to Costa Rica, you just need to know two words and you can basically have a conversation,” because it is just Pura Vida.
Dacher Keltner I think the message you’re developing here about, you know, enjoying the bread that arrives unexpectedly and not guiding your life by these strict, unachievable expectations—I think it’s one of the most important lessons. And I’m curious how you think about that, how you think about conveying and embodying this lesson for kids and in child rearing.
Julie Santos Actually, this is a question that I’ve been dealing with often. My son, who is five, is, you know, early on showing differences in his learning abilities and his way of being, and now there’s a conversation around whether or not he’s on the spectrum of autism and what are his learning differences and how will that translate to his life? And, I am eternally grateful that I have experienced and seen what simple happiness looks like by saying, you know, I have family who are not rich who do not have “favorable careers,” right? They’re blue collar workers, and they are happier than anyone else.
And it all comes down to expectations and it all comes down to feeling enough and being enough in the eyes of your community. So you could be enough for yourself, but like being enough in the eyes of your community is a huge one. And because of that, I have this burden that has been relieved for me. I have this burden that’s been taken away from me because I know my son, regardless of his differences, knowing what I know about him now and his capabilities, he’s going to grow up and, you know, have a “normal life.” He’s going to have a job. He is going to possibly be able to have relationships, maybe a loving one with a significant other. And that’s enough for me.
That’s enough. I’m not worried about him getting into college. Great if he does. I’m not worried about him doing great in school. Awesome if he does. But like, I’m genuinely, authentically happy at the sheer fact that he’s just going to be able to be a human in this society. And my only fear is that he’s a good person and that he’s happy and that he, you know, he treats himself and others with respect.
So I’m very grateful that my life history has offered that to me very early on, even before I birthed a child into this world.
Dacher Keltner I hear you. And you’ve had this really interesting juxtaposition of and you’ve brought it into focus in sharp relief with kind of the U.S. mindset and then the Costa Rican. This is enough, Pura Vida mindset. And how do you think about mixing those two views with respect to expectations and happiness? How do you live that life?
Julie Santos There’s a level of expectation that American culture has that doesn’t really vibe with this other side that I’m talking about—this Pura Vida, this “Enough is enough.” It doesn’t vibe with capitalism. It just really doesn’t. And I’ve tried to marry the both of them over and over again, over my life, and I will tell you, as an immigrant, as most immigrants probably feel this way: I am too American for Costa Rica, and I am too Costa Rican for America. So I’m somewhere in the middle. But, you know, I go to Costa Rica and my expectations are high and I don’t want to wait in line. And you know, these kind of things kind of surface, right? And then I come here and I’m not fast enough, and I take too long to get to my point. And you know, I need an extra conversation before I can give you the answer. And it drives people nuts, you know, sometimes.
So it’s really infuriating, you know. I can’t really fit anywhere, but I think you just have to be comfortable with failing in some places—maybe failing is a bad word, but I mean, I feel like it’s failing. I can’t really put it any other way. There comes a point where I go, “I’m just not going to meet your expectations” because I don’t want to, you know, speed this process through without having proper stakeholder participation. I don’t want to get the three hour conversation into five bullet points that we can vote on. I just don’t, you know, I’m just not interested in that.
And has that affected my career? Yes, undoubtedly so. It has definitely affected my career. I’m not going to lie and say it hasn’t. It has. A million times, promotions have been put over me for the person who could do it faster, stronger, better, and shorter. But what can I say, man. Pura Vida.
I think often when we talk about happiness, and even more so in communities with a lot of privilege, they go towards this like “It’s me.” It’s not about you. It’s about your community. It’s about showing up for your community and for each other.
You have your goals, right? And you have your goals to be a better person. But then in that journey, you acknowledge the coffee, you acknowledge the long line gives you an opportunity to have a conversation with somebody behind you, that kind of stuff. You just—you take them now. Not less important than the future.
When you focus on the moments in time—when you focus on the now—that is happiness, right? It’s the moment in time, it’s where we are now, what we’re doing in this very moment. That’s what brings us happiness.
Dacher Keltner Julie Santos, thank you for being on The Science of Happiness and what a wealth of cultural wisdom for us to think about.
Julie Santos Thank you for having me, and thanks for having the show. It’s incredibly important.
Dacher Keltner Having lower day-to-day expectations increases dopamine levels and, in turn, supports our well-being.
Robb Rutledge If, for example, you give someone a gift, if you lower their expectations at that moment, there’s a higher probability that they’re going to be pleasantly surprised.
Dacher Keltner We consider an experiment that tells this story, up next.
Welcome back to the Science of Happiness. I’m Dacher Keltner.
Imagine you’re in a laboratory and a scientist gives you ten dollars and then a chance to win more money—if you gamble wisely.
Robb Rutledge So a participant in our experiment might see a choice between two dollars for sure or flipping a coin where they could get four dollars if they win the gamble. And if they’re making good decisions, they’ll end up with more money at the end of the experiment than how they started it.
Dacher Keltner Robb Rutledge is a Psychology professor at Yale University who studies decision-making and emotions. He’s done several experiments where he watched people’s brain activity as they tried to win more cash.
Robb Rutledge They’re lying down in the MRI machine and they’re getting shown these images of safe or risky options they can choose, and they press buttons on a keypad to make their choices, and then they find out whether they win or lose.
Dacher Keltner One would assume that people who made the most money would be the happiest, right? Well, that wasn’t the case.
Robb Rutledge I noticed that people would make a lot of money in my experiment. But it was very clear that they weren’t actually that happy when they walked out of the experiment.
Dacher Keltner He and his team monitored brain activity at every moment during one of these gambling exercises and kept a log of every choice each person made, and how much money they won or lost.
Robb Rutledge About once a minute, every three or four trials, we asked them, “How happy are you right now?” They can move a slider around however they like. And then they do their next trial.
Dacher Keltner They did a minute by minute analysis of the relationship between how happy each person was, how much money they were making, and what parts of the brain were most active as they got their results after each round. They monitored activity in a part of the brain called the striatum, which is involved with dopamine release.
Robb Rutledge And what we found was that if you look at the brain activity in the striatum while they’re finding out what happens—when that activity is higher than average, that predicts that people will be happier the next time we ask them.
Dacher Keltner When the activity in the striatum was lower, participants were less likely to report they were happy.
Robb Rutledge So if we know what the brain activity is while they’re going through this task, we can predict exactly what they will say when we ask them, “How happy are you right now?”
Dacher Keltner Next, Robb and his team analyzed how each persons’ brain activity and happiness ratings related to how successful they were in making money, and how much money they were earning overall.
Robb Rutledge And it turns out that actually, the thing that seems to be more important for happiness is not the rewards that we receive.
Dacher Keltner What seemed to matter was that they were making more money than they thought they would.
Robb Rutledge In short, happiness doesn’t depend on how well you’re doing. It depends on whether you’re doing better than expected recently.
Dacher Keltner That doesn’t mean we should keep our expectations low all the time—we need goals and aspirations to get the work done that we’re here to do in our lives.
Robb Rutledge And those are expectations we use to make good decisions.
Dacher Keltner Decisions like saving for your future, or investing in friendships we want to have for a long time.
Robb Rutledge And so, I don’t think it’s a great idea to be walking around with low expectations all the time. I think the balance is important, and I often find it helpful to think of happiness as less of a goal than as a tool. And if we remember that how we feel right now depends a lot on our values and our expectations, then sometimes that just means that if we listen to our own happiness a little bit more, It just helps us to understand ourselves a little bit better.
Dacher Keltner On our next episode of The Science of Happiness…
Marilyn Pittman it’s not that I’m out of ideas, it’s just that I got older and I felt kind of done with everything, you know, like, I should be retired, but I’m an artist and I don’t think artists retire. I need to refresh my spirit, my brain, my artistry. I need help.
Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
Do you have a daily or weekly happiness practice? We’d love to hear it. Email us at happiness pod at berkeley dot edu or use the hashtag happiness pod.
Thanks to our Executive Producer of Audio, Shuka Kalantari, our producer, Haley Gray, Associate producer Kristie Song, Sound designer Jennie Cataldo of Accompany Studios, and our editor in chief Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.