Photo: Le Manh Thang/Shutterstock

Live Long And Prosper: Deconstructing The Happy Planet Index

by Shelley Seale Sep 21, 2009
The Happy Planet Index ranks the happiest countries in the world – Shelly Seale explores what can we learn from studying their cultures.

The quest for happiness, like that for love, is one of the most common shared human experiences. When we travel, we often consider potential destinations based on historical sites, culture, sightseeing, activities and location.

But what about happiness? Can we learn something from people who live longer and more satisfying lives? Or can our own happiness be increased simply by being around them?

An organization called The Happy Planet Index recently released the first ever index to combine environmental impact with well-being to measure the length and contentment of life in world countries.

Nine of the top ten countries are in Latin America – a finding that might be surprising, until you consider the mindset of Latin American culture and what values are given importance.

The index doesn’t claim that all citizens of its top-rated countries are happier than everyone else, but it does show how nations can produce high well-being without excessive consumption of the Earth’s resources.

The Happy Planet Index combines life expectancy, satisfaction, and ecological footprint to process its ratings – when all three components are good, the country’s overall well-being and happiness is rated high.

Nine of the top ten countries are in Latin America – a finding that might be surprising, until you consider the mindset of Latin American culture and what values are given importance. “Latin Americans report being much less concerned with material issues than, for example, they are with their friends and family,” states the HPI data. “Civil society is very active, from religious groups to workers’ groups to environmental groups.”

The takeaway? Having a close network of family and friends, forming intimate bonds, being social and involved in your community may lead to longer and happier lives that almost any other factor.

Countless research has told us for years that being married and having close friendships – even pets – increases longevity and lowers stress. The Happy Planet findings seem to be one more corroboration of this.

According to the HPI, here’s more insight we can learn by examining the Top 5 countries:

#1 – Costa Rica (Score: 76.1 out of 100)

Costa Ricans report the highest life satisfaction in the world, and enjoy the second-highest average life expectancy of the West (only behind Canada). Costa Ricans live slightly longer than Americans while reporting much higher levels of contentment – all with an environmental footprint less than a quarter the size.

A haven of democracy and peace in turbulent Central America, Costa Rica has taken deliberate steps to reduce its environmental impact; with a footprint of 2.3 global hectares, it just narrowly fails to achieve the goal of “one-planet living”: consuming a fair share of natural resources.

It also has the fifth-lowest human poverty index in the developing world, with clean water and adult literacy almost universal. But Costa Rica’s biggest secret may be found in the country’s motto, pura vida. Literally meaning “pure life,” citizens base their fulfillment on spending time with loved ones, doing what they most enjoy in life, and protecting their beautiful natural resources.

#2 – Dominican Republic (Score: 71.5)

The Dominican Republic’s condition is similar to many other countries in the region – a medium Human Development Index score, high levels of inequality and dependence on the USA for trade – yet it manages to achieve a life expectancy of over 70 years with a very small footprint.

The country has led the way in environmental conservation in Latin America since the 1970s; 32% of its land is covered by national parks and reserves, the highest proportion in the Americas.

As politics in the Dominican Republic have become more democratic, local NGOs have begun to flourish. Whereas most environmental NGOs in many developing countries tend to be imports from the rich world, here local groups dominate – again demonstrating the idea that when citizens engage in their communities together, they tend to live happier and longer lives.

#3 – Jamaica (Score: 70.1)

Jamaica’s appearance in the top three of the HPI table comes somewhat as a surprise. It is fair to say that the country has been in some economic trouble for over 30 years, resulting in high levels of inequality and unemployment, and some of the highest homicide rates in the world.

Yet despite these problems, the island is able to maintain some of the best levels of health in the developing world, as indicated by its high average life expectancy. 97% of babies are born with the assistance of skilled health professionals, with only 4% underweight – a figure comparable to richer nations such as Argentina.

Most Jamaicans have access to clean water, unusual in a county with a GDP per capita one-tenth that of the USA. Together with its extremely family-oriented populace and small ecological footprint – approximately 5% of its energy is renewable – is what puts Jamaica towards the top of the HPI table.

#4 – Guatemala (Score: 68.4)

Life expectancy is where Guatemala ranks lowest, with an estimate between 60–75 years. This falls in the middling range, and is what brings the country’s score below Costa Rica.

When it comes to life satisfaction, however, Guatemalans are right there at the top, reporting 7.4 on a scale of 1-10 for being “satisfied with their life.” The nation also comes in under the minimums for one-planet living, consuming resources at a rate of less than one planet’s worth.

#5 – Vietnam (Score: 66.5)

The only Eastern nation to crack the top ten, Vietnam racked up 8.5 in the satisfaction index and has an average life-span of 73.7 years. The country’s ecological footprint only narrowly misses the one-planet goal. Sociologist Andrea Fonseca says that Vietnam’s high happiness rating “has a lot to do with social imagination.”

The bottom ten HPI scores were all suffered by sub-Saharan African countries, with Zimbabwe bottom of the table with an HPI score of 16.6. And how does the United States fare? Below the middle, with a score of 30.7 at 114th place and consuming resources as if we had four planets to live from.

The highest-placed Western nation is the Netherlands at 43rd, and the UK ranks midway down the table at 74th, behind Germany, Italy and France.

Perhaps the European and North American focus on consumerism is actually making us less happy. In fact, while most countries’ scores increased between 1990 and 2005, the three largest countries in the world (China, India and the USA) have all seen their scores drop during that time, suggesting they are indeed less happy now than twenty years ago.

The Happy Planet Index begs us to ask how many resources are we wasting – both as individuals and as a culture – on things that don’t even improve our lives?

If we made a rule of targeting resources only at things that delivered quality of life, we would end up automatically saving the planet – and at least according to the Happy Planet Index, living happier lives as well.

What do you think – any other lessons we can learn from these happy countries? Share in the comments!

Community Connection

Check out Carlo’s 5 Key Ingredients in the Search For Happiness. And for a laugh, read The Hunt For Happiness comic.

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