The Happy Planet Index

June 25th, 2012 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

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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21 Responses to “The Happy Planet Index”

  1. mikenmild (10,729 comments) says:

    It may well be perfectlypossible to live a happy and satisfying life in an impoverished dictatorship. The HPI is not measuring wealth or freedom.

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  2. bhudson (4,734 comments) says:

    It would appear that you are only allowed to feel happy if your ecological footprint meets someone else’s determination of what is acceptable.

    Do you have to complete a form before smiling?

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  3. PaulL (5,873 comments) says:

    Apparently many people who live in grinding poverty in North Korea are quite happy. Because they don’t have any comparison point to people who aren’t in grinding poverty. By that measure, a good way to ensure happiness is to remove any expectation of betterment. If you have no ambition, you have no cause to be unhappy. Hmm. 1984 was it?

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  4. immigant (950 comments) says:

    It’s better then the former Eastern block i suppose. Not as good as France. Meh…. good enough, if we keep at it, we can make it better.

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  5. PaulL (5,873 comments) says:

    So, perhaps the problem is the title, rather than the content. Calling it the Happy Planet index is perhaps wrong, but if it were the “living in accordance with Green precepts for honouring Gaia” index then that would fix it.

    It is then indisputably true that Myanmar is living closer to the Green ideal than Australia is, and that NZ is also living closer to the Green ideal than Australia. The fact that the Green ideal puts little value on human rights and individuality, and a very high value on consuming as little as possible (i.e., being poor), is not relevant to this discussion. :-)

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  6. adamsmith1922 (888 comments) says:

    another crap survey reported by so called media

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  7. mikenmild (10,729 comments) says:

    I suspect that if we were to construct an index that compared a few more things – economic wellbeing, political freedom, corruption, crime, education – then NZ would be well up the charts.

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  8. tom hunter (4,415 comments) says:

    “But while I am poor I am industrious, honest and trustworthy.

    Had I the inclination …. I could look down on them.

    But I don’t.

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  9. Manolo (13,370 comments) says:

    Cuba and Pakistan? One a communist dinosaur, the other a chaotic land of violence, corruption, and vile religion.
    Who would like to live in those benighted places?

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  10. tas (595 comments) says:

    Calculating “ecological footprint” into a happiness index is silly (unless it is one of many variables, not just three). Particularly, because I suspect that having a low ecologial footprint is correlated with being under-developed, having limited resources, and poverty in general.

    A better index would be based on migration (or attempted migration), as people vote with their feet on which countries are better to live in.

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  11. Griff (6,775 comments) says:

    OECD better life index is the one that counts It has the criteria that mike mentions.

    I would add a link but Google seems to have crashed

    This happy planet index is a mad as a fruit loop nut job exercise in stupidity those responsible should go and live in the top rating country’s and then re-evaluate their criteria

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  12. mikenmild (10,729 comments) says:

    Thanks Griff. I guess one problem with that is it is only applied to OECD countries, so misses out on places that ‘poor but happy’, although I note the close connection between wealth and wellbeing shown here:
    http://www.economist.com/blogs/dailychart/2011/05/well-being_and_wealth

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  13. Auberon (869 comments) says:

    For a relatively “happy” country we sure do a lot of bitching and pointless navel gazing.

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  14. scrubone (3,048 comments) says:

    So basically ecological footprint is grossly overweighted.

    One wonders why it was there in the first place.

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  15. Sam Buchanan (502 comments) says:

    Doesn’t seem to me that this is supposed to measure happiness, so most of the commentary about it is way off mark – it’s supposed to measure happiness per ‘unit’ of ecological load. Quite a different thing. It’s pointing out that if your ‘happiness’ is based on an unsustainable lifestyle, it doesn’t really stack up. You might disagree with it but there’s no point grumbling about it for saying things it doesn’t claim to say.

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  16. Luc Hansen (4,573 comments) says:

    there’s no point grumbling about it for saying things it doesn’t claim to say.

    Sam, have you not realised by now that that is the modus operandi for Kiwiblog?

    And I would place a great deal more weight on the organisations like WWF and NEF than in the NZ Initiative and Luke Malpass!

    However, I did welcome the abject surrender of the Business Roundtable, so I suppose I should be grateful to the NZ Initiative for providing a new home to that thoroughly discredited group. After all, everyone needs a home.

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  17. OECD rank 22 kiwi (2,811 comments) says:

    The Green movement is wrong. This report is wrong and must be shamed.

    No action will come of this lame report. When are the next GDP figures out?

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  18. PaulL (5,873 comments) says:

    The problem is probably the reporting. NZ was not the 28th happiest country. NZ was the country ranked as making the planet 28th happiest. Nothing to do with happiness of the citizens.

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  19. Jim (398 comments) says:

    “It may well be perfectlypossible to live a happy and satisfying life in an impoverished dictatorship. The HPI is not measuring wealth or freedom.”

    True.

    Perhaps someone could correlate The Happy Planet index with the Gini index. Looks like the two are unrelated.

    Colombia, Belize, El Salvador, Costa Rica… the happiest countries seem to draw from the pool of the most unequal income distribution.

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  20. Liberal Minded Kiwi (1,563 comments) says:

    Easy answer to all that. In most of those countries those who said they were happy had a gun to their heads. Either that or their supreme leaders made it illegal to show sadness.

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  21. mikenmild (10,729 comments) says:

    Some of the countries near the top of the index have well-established liberal democracies.
    I’d prefer to see an index along the lines of the OECD measure that Griff pointed out above.
    If nothing else, these alternative measure demonstrate some of the dangers in assuming that economic measures are the best indicators of overall wellbeing.

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