Last updated on April 20th, 2020 at 01:20 pm EST
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What is pura vida?
In Costa Rican vernacular, the phrase you’ll hear Ticos (Costa Ricans) mutter most often is pura vida. Though the phrase translates succinctly to “pure life” in English, in a non-literal sense, the meaning of pura vida is much more difficult to nail down.
As a Costa Rica traveler and the wife of a Costa Rican, I’ve spent more than a decade peeling back pura vida‘s various layers only to realize that there’s no one definition at the concept’s core. The essence of pura vida is its layers–an overlapping series of life-changing lessons left open to interpretation.
As a writer, I learned early on that pura vida isn’t just a noun, an adjective, or a verb. It’s all three. It’s something to have, like humility, a gracious heart, a positive outlook on life, or authentic Costa Rican charm. It’s a description in that the phrase is often used to suggest something is laid-back or stress-free. It’s a verb, too, because it represents a way of living life, a way of repaying life for its blessings, a way of breaking free of life’s struggles, or a way to move in a new direction. Pura vida is all of these things and more. Though it means something different to everyone, the general consensus is that pura vida is good and transformative.
During these unprecedented times, while the COVID-19 coronavirus continues to grip and shake the world, we rely on sources of comfort to give us the strength to hold on. On my quest to maintain my personal mental health and well-being during the current crisis, or at least until I’m able to explore Costa Rica again and feed my mental health with travel, I’m choosing to focus my attention on uplifting mantras. They remind me that, although life feels like it is spinning out of control at the present time, we aren’t powerless to create meaningful change. If you’re open to learning and trying new things, let Costa Rica’s pura vida be a source of comfort to you. I’ve found the 5 pura vida-inspired lessons described below to be particularly helpful during the pandemic.
Pura vida preaches a “Don’t worry until there’s something to worry about” mindset
My husband and I are similar in many ways, but if there’s one aspect of our personalities that makes us complete opposites it’s the way we approach stressful situations. Tough times bring out the best in him and the worst in me. With S.W.A.T.-like precision, he can approach an unfamiliar and alarming scenario calmly, instantly identify credible threats, and devise a plan to overcome the enemy, whether it be a hazard to our health, well-being, loved ones, finances, or something else. I, regrettably, let anxiety cloud my vision, which usually leads me to panic. At our core, he’s fight and I’m flight. That’s one of the reasons he’s my hero.
I have no doubt that my husband’s ability to zero in on problems and discard distractions is due to the pura vida that pumps through his Costa Rican blood. It serves as an auto-administered dose of anti-stress medication that’s delivered to his veins on the regular. While he’s still capable of worrying, it takes a lot for his mind to justify that response. A psychologist might say that he’s a pro at performing controlled, cognitive risk analyses. In simpler words, his clear head prevents him from worrying unless he feels it’s absolutely necessary.
What’s the secret to my hubby’s clear head and Hakuna Matata (no worries) mindset? The pura vida in him. Because pura vida encourages focusing on the now, that practice helps avoid premature (and possibly unwarranted) worry. Though it may be the case that worry becomes unavoidable in the future, pura vida suggests you should approach stressful situations with a narrow scope so you can focus on what’s in front of you right now and not on what lies ahead.
If you’re at all like me and you’re constantly planning for the future, that’s okay. But when times get tough, what’s going to determine whether you get to live your happily ever after later is how you act today. I know all too well how debilitating anxiety can be, including how much of a struggle it can be to claw your way out of a quicksand-like pile of doubt, negativity, and uncertainty, but if you’re able to focus on what (if anything) truly warrants worry in this moment, you’ll avoid sinking into an endless desert of what-ifs.
Pura vida suggests looking on the bright side
If there’s anything that a persistent pessimist hates, it’s optimism. I admit, sometimes when I’m struggling with a problem and someone shines a light on a silver lining, I don’t want to see it. But, despite my grumpy demeanor at that moment, the silver lining exists. One usually does, regardless of anyone’s openness to see it.
Inherent in pura vida is a significant amount of optimism. It’s one of the reasons why Ticos are smiley, cheerful people and why most speak about the future with hope. My husband, in particular, is full of positivity. He’s not annoyingly perky or overly idealistic, though, he’s a practical thinker who rarely lets fear or anxiety sway his thoughts. Since negativity doesn’t darken his outlook on life, he’s able to see the bright side in nearly every scenario.
Though I knew my husband was a positive-minded person when I married him, it’s during life’s difficult moments that his pura vida-ness comes out and is most appreciated. Take the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, for example. Right now is a very challenging time to exist, let alone feel optimistic, as people are dying and losing loved ones; getting sick and having to distance themselves from others; losing income, jobs, and businesses; and living in limbo and fear. Some situations are downright awful and if I had the power to vanish the virus from the globe to prevent further devastation I would. Because that isn’t possible, and because my husband has taught me that practicing pura vida involves practicing positivity, in the midst of our world’s distressing plight I’m exercising the power I do posses, which is an ability to focus on the good that will come from the pandemic. As destructive and devastating as COVID-19 is, one could argue (and several people already have) that the globe’s climate, ecosystems, air/water quality, and wildlife/marine life stand to benefit greatly from our temporary hiatus from the norm. While these advantages and others couldn’t possibly minimize the negative, lasting impact that the virus will undoubtedly have on our world, they represent positive change that shouldn’t be ignored. If you feel like the current situation knocked your legs out from under you and keeps hitting you while you’re down, opting to look on the bright side, to see the silver lining, or to abide by a different idiom that stands for positivity can help cushion the blow.
Pura vida encourages focusing on gratitude
It wasn’t long after I moved to Costa Rica that I realized Ticos are a particularly appreciative group. Though I can only assume that most people around the world appreciate gifts like good health, family, and friends, I know that in Costa Rica, gratitude extends beyond the obvious. Ticos appreciate time, conversation, and social connection. They appreciate nature, the climate, and natural resources. They appreciate work, and not only during challenging times when they’re forced to go without it. There’s an unspoken indebtedness to life itself that’s evident in the Tico soul. I attribute that commitment, which is fulfilled through gratitude, to pura vida.
When the going gets tough, gratitude can provide perspective and hope. I know this because, whenever I’m faced with loss or the threat of it, my husband doesn’t dwell on what’s at stake, he comforts me by pointing out all that we have. Sometimes he doesn’t address the problem outright, he just rhymes off our blessings because he believes they’re most deserving of our energy and attention. And he’s right. He usually ends the conversation with a cheery “Pura vida!” which never fails to make me grin and reminds me–once again–that Costa Rica’s mantra is to thank for his strength and resilience.
It’s easy to lose sight of what we cherish most in life when we’re distracted by anxiety or fear. At the same time, it’s easy to fixate on the negative and forget the positive, especially during worldwide, panic-inducing pandemics like the one we’re battling now. But recognizing our blessings is a heartwarming part of survival that can melt away stress, frustration, anger, and resentment like you wouldn’t believe. If it helps you at all, try thinking like a Tico by shifting your perspective to see only what you have, not what you stand to lose. I’m almost certain you’ll find there’s more to be thankful for than what’s at risk.
Pura vida serves as a reminder to take it easy
Thanks to the thousands of people (Ticos and expats) who spend their days holed up near a Costa Rican beach, surfing, socializing, and soaking up rays of tropical sunshine, Costa Rica’s quintessential catchphrase (“Pura vida!“) has become partly synonymous with laziness. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find that what is sometimes misconstrued as apathy is actually a healthy, relaxed approach to life.
Here’s why Costa Rica appears year after year at the top of global happiness indexes: Because Ticos let stress roll off their backs with a swift exclamation of “Pura vida!” The power went out. “Pura vida! It’ll come back shortly.” The highway’s closed up ahead. “Pura vida! I’ll take the long way around.” The company’s laying off workers. “Pura vida! I’ll get another job.” The nation is battling a worldwide pandemic. “Pura vida!” It’s awful, but it will be over before too long.” Don’t get me wrong, Ticos aren’t indifferent folks. They’re quite the opposite actually. But there’s no denying they have a way of keeping their cool amid mass hysteria. They’re able to keep reality in check, not mistake hard times for the end of the world, and appreciate downtime, even when it isn’t desired. Perhaps most importantly, Ticos exempt themselves from unnecessary struggle. They choose to take it easy.
Dealing with a loss of control is never easy, especially when things of paramount importance are on the line, like physical and mental health, the health of loved ones, jobs, and income. During incredibly taxing times, including those we’re currently facing due to COVID-19, remaining calm might seem like an impossible feat. But if thousands of Ticos can let go of stress by channeling pura vida, I’m confident that you can too.
Pura vida unites us through humility
A few years after I began exploring Costa Rica, I got the words humility and humildad (the Spanish equivalent of “humility”) tattooed on my feet. By then, my time in Costa Rica had already taught me what it means to be humble and why humility is such an important virtue. I began learning these lessons the day I stepped onto Costa Rican soil for the very first time because humility is present in much of what Ticos say and do.
My husband tried to explain the significance of humildad in Costa Rica to me a few months into our relationship. I remember him using compelling words and phrases like “responsibility,” “honor,” and “way of life” as he explained that humility isn’t merely a quality that some people possess, it’s part of what makes most Ticos authentically Costa Rican. The same can be said about pura vida in Costa Rica, which I’m convinced is a concept founded on humility.
Humility takes many forms in Costa Rica. It’s the generosity of neighbors, the modest use and display of material possessions, the lack of superiority complexes, the demonstration of respect, and the unity of the nation, among other examples. It’s inspiring, to say the least, and if you spend a good chunk of time in Costa Rica, you’ll likely find that it’s life-changing too.
It is often during times of crises when we find ourselves without our various wants, like dinner dates at restaurants, vacations to other countries, and, according to some individuals, a stockpile of groceries. It’s also during these times when it’s most important to practice humility. This isn’t the time (is it ever?) to be arrogant, to indulge in the non-essential, or to exhibit disregard for other people. While extreme measures (e.g., isolation, quarantine, and physical distancing) are bound to cause discomfort when they disrupt our daily routines, they’re also an expected sacrifice that’s necessary for the greater good. What you may not have expected, however, when the virus hit like an invisible, merciless hurricane was that you’d be riding out the storm in a boat shared with millions of other people. If ever there was a time to forego your wants and prioritize the needs of your crewmates, it’s now. If you’re searching for a way to keep your head above water, you’ll find a figurative life preserver in pura vida.