Happy Planet Index

The Happy Planet Index, unlike other forms of measuring of the health of a country, measures the relative happiness of the people in that country irrespective of most other measures that countries are normally subject to such as GDP, trade  surpluses or infrastructural considerations. We might ask then why the list is topped by Costa Rica and Vietnam.  The Happy Planet Index is calculated as follows:

Experienced happiness is measured by a poll of people in each country, Life expectancy is from the UN Development Report and Ecological footprint is from the WWF.

When the people of Costa Rica were polled, they were actually found to be quite happy in comparison with most other countries. They were not the highest by any means. Vietnam, on the other hand, came somewhat further down the list than countries like the US and Canada in terms of how they ranked purely based on happiness. So why did they rank second on the global Happy Planet Index?

The author of the index includes one other major factor in the rating, specifically, the index includes the resource usage of the country, which in theory should give a measure of the sustainability of that nation based on the fact that it uses few resources and will therefore be able to sustain its level of happiness over a longer period. Based on these two factors combined, Vietnam did well because its’ current level of resource usage is very low on a per capita basis.

There are obviously factors that the HPI does not take into account which might make this index incorrect. For example, countries like Vietnam, in their effort to achieve greater “success” for the people, are tending towards an open market economy. While not necessarily a bad thing, it also means that the ecological footprint of today is most likely not the footprint of tomorrow. In China, as an example, a more open economy has meant that  it generates more wealth overall, at the same time importing pollution from and exporting resources to more wealthy countries such as Canada and the US where the absolute level of happiness as citizen polls indicate, are higher than in China and Vietnam. This is precisely because we benefit from their footprint increase while at the same time decreasing our own footprint. Unfortunately, this can’t be adjusted by a mathematical re-allocation of footprint, because the impacts are real. So while Vietnam’s happiness polls are likely to go higher with increased wealth, it’s ecological footprint is likely to soar, thus lowering it’s happy Planet Index.

What is the answer to this dilemma? Thankfully, the government of Vietnam has some awareness of its need to grow sustainably. It’s Ministry of Environment asks the right questions and, at least on the surface, it is striving to manage this process of growth and sustainability.  Provided that the government is able to manage the corruption found in the political realm and enforce strict standards to significantly limit environmental impacts, it may have a chance of maintaining it’s good standing on the index. But there are pressures on the Vietnamese government as with any other country. People do not want to be poor and they do not want to be only partly happy. Businesses, likewise, want to take advantage of available resources. Even major projects in other countries may impact Vietnam’s well-being. For example, water flowing through China supports much of Vietnam’s river economy. As water is stressed by a growing industrial base, so too will be Vietnam’s environment . The increasing demand for light metals such as aluminum for automotive and many other applications have resulted in mining operations which threaten to strip the rich bauxite resources from Vietnam primarily for export while leaving behind lakes polluted with Red Mud and coffee crops poisoned with heavy metals downstream. A growing number of coal fired power plants from their vast reserves of coal will provide power for the millions of people and the growing industrial base while turning the coal into  CO2 which impacts climate and airborne pollution similar to that which has so severely impacted the cities of China. While there will be jobs created for some Vietnamese, like China and every other newly industrialized country, they will begin to suffer the impact of automation. While theoretically having the potential to benefit the people by reducing costs and increasing availability of many goods, it may also leave the country stripped of resources, while  significantly curtailing job creation, destroying some industries such as localized agriculture which provides many people with a meager but reliable income, and leaving the people possibly even worse off than they were before. Ensuring that industrial benefits and wealth are fairly and wisely distributed will be one of the greatest challenges.

The Happy Planet Index is a good start. It is a measure which tells us where we are and gives hints at where we need to be heading. On the other hand, it is not an exact measure and it is not a recipe for success. For that, we need to look deeper at the political, business, agricultural, familial, social, spiritual and other systems that contribute to our well-being.  As much as I would like to have faith that people will do the right things to make a better life for the vast majority, the evidence in most countries suggest that we are prepared to sacrifice future happiness for current desires. This appears to be even more true for those who have most benefited from the wealth and those in positions of power who are willing to exploit all resources to benefit themselves with very little regard to the impact they are having on others. Let us hope that the majority learn from our mistakes and strip the power from the most egregious offenders.

A read of the World Happiness Report is extremely enlightening. The report outlines the sources of happiness and discounts the view that wealth and happiness necessarily go hand in hand. It also measures happiness differently than the happy planet index, relying on methods defined by the Gross National Happiness index developed in Bhutan which puts Denmark at the top and yet it identifies some of the same policy related issues. The Bhutan index identifies four major pillars for happiness.

1. Equitable and equal socio-economic development
2. Preservation and promotion of cultural and spiritual heritage
3. Conservation of environment and
4. Good governance which are interwoven, complementary, and consistent.

While we can never guarantee the benefits of any national policy, politician or political system, it is certainly worth having a closer look at those countries which top the happy planet index as well as the World Happiness Report index, especially those that have  happy people and a more sustainable lifestyle to see what they are doing right. It the case of Vietnam, voting for your government representatives is impossible unless you are involved with government. Those of us who live in democracies should never be fooled into believing what our government representatives want to tell us unless there is hard evidence. Before you vote, if you truly want a happier society and a happier life, read these reports and study these indexes and allow them to inform your thinking before voting. We will all be better off if our governments and government representatives take us in more humane and gentle directions.

Keep happy,

Garth Schmalenberg



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