Happy Planet Index

05 Jan 2011

Article taken from Slowfood number 48.

We are now beginning to talk about happiness and well-being in their proper sense, and not in the material terms we are accustomed to using. The idea of measuring the levels of happiness in different countries was developed by Nic Marks, a researcher at the NEF (The New Economic Foundation) in London with a degree in management, a passion for statistics, human psychology and the environment. Marks admits he exhibits the typical characteristic of a happiness researcher (they do exist), which he calls a chronic positive affect. It is certainly something you need when deciding to investigate one of the great mysteries of life. In fact how can you measure happiness? Marks assumes that there is a basic connection between human well-being and the environment. It is obvious that we are happier when we live in a more pleasant environment, but here we are talking about how happiness is closely related to the condition of the planet. The result of the study, now in its second edition, was published with the title Happy Planet Index (HPI): A happy life can’t exist without a happy planet.

The parameters of happiness
The starting point is to question our conventional criterion of national progress and well-being based on strictly numerical economic indicators (GDP, economic growth etc.), which are inadequate as determinants of personal happiness. So why not consider human development rather than economic growth as a more valid criterion for measuring actual well-being? The HPI uses three criteria: life-satisfaction, life expectancy and ecological footprint, with the first including such things as a person’s relationships with other people, a sense of belonging to a community, opportunities, involvement in useful and fulfilling activities. The first two criteria are basically goals all human beings aspire to. We can agree on that but what is the price?

Here the third criterion comes into play, the use of resources which allow us to reach a particular level of well-being. To calculate the level of sustainability, Marks uses the concept of ecological footprint, which looks at the human consumption of natural resources in terms of the earth’s capacity to regenerate. To give an idea, in 2005 the ecological footprint of western countries was so high that it would require three planets’ worth of resources. Our well-being has been achieved by grabbing everything we could, without considering those who often consume the minimum possible and do not use their own resources or raw materials because they provide them for more developed countries. So the true objective of the HPI, calculated for 143 countries, is not to determine which are the happiest and longest-living countries in the world, but to show which of them achieve the goal without abusing and stressing the natural resources of the planet. In practice, happiness achieved at almost zero environmental cost.

If we now look at the results we see that firstly, there is no truly happy country, none of them achieved excellent results for all three indicators. For example, the countries normally considered at the top of the development rankings have high life expectancy and a good quality of life, but their ecological footprint is so high that they are pushed to the bottom of the table. This is the case for the US which appears in 114th place, a country which consumes as though it has four planets available. The reverse is true for some African countries such as Angola and Zambia with an almost non-existent ecological footprint, but among the lowest for life expectancy and satisfaction (Zimbabwe is in bottom position with a life expectancy of 40.9 years). Italy is in a modest 69th place: It has high life expectancy (80 years) and people are fairly satisfied, but fixated on consumption (twice as much as allowed).

Top of the list
Topping the chart is Costa Rica. “It is a result we should take as an example. This country has a life expectancy of 78.5 years, higher than the US,” says Marks. “It uses about a quarter of the resources used on average by the west. Ninety-nine percent of the electricity it produces comes from renewable sources; it is committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2021. It scrapped its army in 1949 and made significant investments in social, educational and health programs. The percentage of people living on less than two dollars a day is lower than Romania, a member state of the European Union! What is more it is a Latin country, which means strong family networks and a willingness to share”. It is followed by the Dominican Republic in second place and, unexpectedly, Jamaica in third position.

This island discovered by Christopher Columbus has a minimal ecological footprint and policies focused on defending the environment. Thirty-two percent of the country is covered by national parks and reserves, the highest percentage on the American continent. But Jamaica’s position in third place is a surprise. Statistics tell us that it has one of the highest murder rates in the world, as well as significant poverty. Yet the population has a life expectancy of 72.2 years. This is the result of an effective health policy, from medical care to availability of potable water, a surprising situation for a country whose GDP per head is one tenth of America’s, as Professor James Riley points out in his book Poverty and Life Expectancy: The Jamaica Paradox. We also discover that 5% of its power comes from renewable sources. It might seem a low figure but is the same as the UK.

When you run your eye down the first 10 positions in the HPI, it is astonishing to find nine Latin American countries, including Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Colombia. What do they have in common? La pura vida. It is an expression used a lot in Costa Rica and indicates an aptitude for enjoying life, the present moment and all the positive things to be found here and now. “We are honest: this part of the world is and has been marked by inequality, civil wars, deforestation and areas of extreme poverty concentrated around the large conurbations,” continues Marks. “It is by no means paradise on earth, but there are two key aspects of Latin-American culture which are of fundamental importance: the presence of non-materialistic values and aspirations, and social relationships: the family, friendships and the activism of civil society. They are crucial factors in promoting a sense of well-being. The positive outlook which is a consequence also helps people to deal with present problems and future challenges”. Our main aim should be to adapt ourselves to that model.

The five ways to happiness
To understand where things stand, in his recent talk at TED in Oxford, Marks was not afraid to directly criticize the environmental movement (which he supports) for its apocalyptic vision of the future, based on dramatic examples to seize public attention. “There has been a strategic mistake, people should be motivated by positive stimuli and feedback, preferably immediate. We all need updated information, but it should be the right sort, not listening to things like the movements of the Dow Jones Index on the radio every day”. He proposes five positive ways to achieve happiness in daily life: connecting to other people and having positive reciprocal effects, doing physical exercise, taking notice and “extending your antenna”, continuing to learn and feeding your curiosity. Finally, the most anti-economic activities imaginable, but with great potential for creating happiness: generosity, altruism and empathy. “All five are simple actions without any burden on the planet, they show that happiness can be non-destructive. It is true that happiness is a complex and elusive concept but it is surprisingly easy to achieve if we know how”.

For further information: www.happyplanetindex.org

Nic Marks is a researcher at the NEF (The New Economic Foundation) in London who has developed the Happy Planet Index (HPI), a system for measuring the well-being of countries. It incorporates three indicators: life-satisfaction, life expectancy and ecological footprint. While the first two criteria are basically goals all human beings aspire to, the third one focuses on the use of resources which enable us to reach a particular level of well-being. To calculate the level of sustainability, Marks uses the concept of ecological footprint, which looks at the human consumption of natural resources in terms of the earth’s capacity to regenerate.

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