Off the happy planet

Yesterday the SMH gave some publicity to the latest version of the so-called Happy Planet Index, another of those dubious indexes that combines incommensurable things – in this case a nation’s life expectancy, life satisfaction, and ‘ecological footprint’ – into a single number.

According to the SMH article,

The results turn our idea of progress on its head,” the report said.

“It shows that a good life is possible without costing the earth.”

Alas, not only is the methodology dubious but the results don’t support the conclusion reached. They show how hard it is to achieve life satisfaction on low levels of consumption (as measured by the ‘ecological footprint’). Only a dozen of the top 50 ranked countries achieve ‘normal’ 7+ (out of 10) life satisfaction ratings. And all but three of these twelve are in Latin America, which repeatedly scores much better on life satisfaction and happiness scores than other places with comparable economic, political and social development. You can be poor and happy, but only in one part of the world.

Several countries in the top 50, including Bangladesh, Nepal, Armenia and Yemen, score below 5.5, suggesting that much of the population in these countries is very unhappy. That the ‘planet’ might be happy at the low levels of consumption in these places is not likely to be much consolation.

Will Wilkinson isn’t impressed either.

10 Responses to “Off the happy planet

  • 1
    procrustes
    July 7th, 2009 21:49

    Let me add my dubious research findings:

    Comparing the Happy Planet guff with the UN’s figure’s on net migration rate gets you the following (data covers all countries in the NEF report except Burma, but these relationships are weak):

    People don’t want to stay countries with high Happy Planet Index scores.

    Comparing HPI with net migration rate per 1000:

    y=-0.061x+2.724 R2=0.029

    People want to live in countries with high life satisfaction scores:

    Comparing LS with net migration rate per 1000:

    y=1.08x-6.3079 R2=.1104

    People REALLY want to live in places with a high ecological footprint:

    Comparing EF with net migration rate per 1000:

    y=1.2107x -3.4158 R2=.3269

  • 2
    Dave Bath
    July 7th, 2009 22:01

    (1) How would you rate the HPI as an indicator of sustainable living with GDP (per cap) as an indicator of economic health, particularly the be-all-and-end-all that many treat GDP as?

    (2) Are you equally critical of the UNDP HDI? (I am, thinking that the GDP component should be taken out – or at least HDI/percapGDP is a better measure of performance of the government)

    (3) Is “Ecological footprint” poorly defined in your view? If so, what would you suggest as a replacement?

    (4) Personally, a GDP-less HDI over the GHa is probably the best indicator of sustainable quality life. How many countries meet both UNDP goals for high HDI and low GHa? One, as reported in New Scientist a year or so ago: Cuba. The failure to mark down countries harder if they don’t meet UNDP HDI non-economic goals is a major weakness in the HPI.

    (5) “Happiness” normalized for per cap wealth, education and health is tricky to measure, but differences between nations certainly indicate where “affluenza” may be lowering happiness.

    (6) I’d seriously like to see how you would put together a “Gross National Happiness” indicator – because I hit snags every time I think about it.

  • 3
    Pedro S
    July 7th, 2009 22:10

    Extending procrutes idea, has anyone constructed an index of where people actually move to and leave?

    It would be an index of where people actually want to live, rather than the usual silly figures given out by people with ideological objectives.

  • 4
    Andrew Norton
    July 7th, 2009 22:47

    Dave – I haven’t conducted a session of comparative indexes, and while I expect that some are better than others – the HDI does not in my limited experience of it get ridiculous results – I think the methodological problems are huge and the purpose almost always political.

    If people think that consumption levels are unsustainable they can argue that without making any dubious claims about its relationship to current happiness.

  • 5
    Patrick
    July 8th, 2009 03:35

    I can answer Dave Bath’s questions 1 and 6, albeit somewhat facetiously:
    Q 6: GDP per cap would be a good start.
    Q 1: see Q6.

    Seriously, they correlate pretty well. If you want to include things like sustainability, fine, but ‘sustainability’ as commonly defined is inversely proportionate to any reasonable measure of happiness.

    Also, in the long run, which is what should matter when you are talking about ‘sustainability’, richer societes are more sustainable than poor ones because, not to put too fine a point on it, they have more money with which to sustain themselves. This includes, if you like, being able to pay more for electricity to emit less carbon, etc.

    Pedro, the OECDdoes sth like that. Is that what you are after? Swivel has already collated it.

    But those kinds of statistics don’t capture some important details like rural–>urban migration which is perhaps THE overwhelming feature of migration in the last 100 years, and in China of the next 20 years especially.

  • 6
    John Humphreys
    July 8th, 2009 09:10

    I say we just stop measuring everything and let allah work it out… :)

  • 7
    Jeremy
    July 8th, 2009 10:28

    Good on you procrustes.

  • 8
    Pedro S
    July 8th, 2009 11:28

    That’s great Patrick. Thanks for that.

  • 9
    Rob
    July 8th, 2009 20:32

    Given declining marginal utility to consumption (and happiness not going below zero) an index of welfare/environmental burden would have an expected order of poorest (best) to richest (worst).

    Variation from this order might give you some idea as to which countries are happy or unhappy for their level of consumption (due to culture, or efficiency of environmental resources or whatever), but the order itself isn’t much use at all.

  • 10
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    July 9th, 2009 23:19

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