The Happy Planet Index

The Herald reports:

 New Zealand has trumped Australia as a happier country in a survey ranking the well-being of nations.

The New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index rated New Zealand as the world’s 28th-happiest country – well above Australia’s ranking of 76.

Yay, NZ is above Australia on an index. Does that mean we can relax, and not worry about their greater economic wealth? Nope. at the looks closer at the index:

This week, the New Economic Foundation (NEF) released its third Happy Planet Index (HPI). New Zealand scored 51.6 and is ranked 28th out of 151 countries.

The HPI is one of several trendy ranking reports that have sprung up over the past decade. It does not rely on per capita GDP growth alone as a proxy measure of a nation’s well-being.

Such reports argue that in the post-materialist world in which we live, it is important to measure things other than material prosperity through the useful but blunt measure of GDP growth. That sounds sensible and laudable but only until you see how it is calculated – and who performs well.

This particular survey uses the following formula:
HPI = experience well-being x life expectancy ÷ ecological footprint

The ‘life expectancy’ part of the equation is taken from the UNDP Human Development Report and is based on hard data. The ‘experienced life well-being’ bit is based on asking people how they feel about life, and the ‘ecological footprint’ is some consumption measure cooked up by the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF).

The NEF claims: “The HPI is a clear and meaningful barometer of how well a nation is doing. This is its key value.” It sounds very nice, but who ranks where?

New Zealand is ranked 28th, Jordan is one place ahead of us, and Norway one place behind. Ranked above us are nations such as Algeria, the Philippines and Cuba. Bangladesh ranks 10th, and Vietnam 2nd. Pakistan – a nation where civil society has all but broken down – makes the top 20. Australia is 76th, below peaceful and prosperous paradises such as Myanmar, Tunisia, Uzbekistan and Yemen.

Algeria is a nice place to live, if you are a man. Men become adults at age 18. Women do not get any adult rights until they are married to a man. Cuba, Bangladesh and Pakistan all sound very happy places to live also.

And it is not just NZ that has beaten Australia – so has Myanmar – that impoverished dictatorship.

Obviously the question one might ask is: Would anyone really want to live in a poor dump ruled by human rights abusing dictators rather than a peaceful, wealthy democracy? Probably not. The HPI acknowledges that as extreme human rights abuses tend to affect minorities, the index methodology might understate them.

A yearning for competing indices to GDP growth arises out of good intentions – GDP is a narrow measure. However, at least it measures something measurable.

By contrast, most competing happiness indexes, including the HPI, tell us precisely nothing, including where we might like to live.

Like Luke, whenever I see a report I don’t just report it. I always look at their methodology and check out what exactly they are basing their rankings on.

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