Toward an Earthwise economy, part 2: Happy Planet Index

Americans like to think of ourselves as some of the happiest people on Earth. We have one of the highest standards of living, we help ourselves to information from anywhere, we enjoy foods from around the world, we can travel every corner of the Earth. Still there’s this nagging awareness—borne out in piles of data that keep growing—that our way of life is trashing the planet.

Panic sets in, a sense of despair. We have to maintain this lifestyle in order to be happy, don’t we?

Apparently not, according to the New Economics Foundation (NEF), an independent think tank out of Great Britain. NEF wondered if a large ecological footprint, such as developed countries have, translates into correspondingly happier people. They ask one pointed question:

Does living a good life have to cost the Earth?

They answer the question by researching happiness indexes of countries around the world and comparing the results to how big of an environmental footprint that country leaves. They call it the Happy Planet Index. Basically, it shows how many happy years a people have as compared to their footprint. (In technical terms, it’s how efficiently, economically speaking, a country translates natural resources into well-being.)

To score high, a country has to report:

  1. High life satisfaction
  2. High life expectancy
  3. Low ecological footprint

The results of the research may surprise you.

  • Out of 143 countries, the United States ranks number 114. It’s not just that Americans report less happiness than do those in many other countries; our life expectancy is also lower than dozens of others, including Japan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Canada, all European countries, Greece, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates. And then of course there’s our footprint, one of the highest in the world.
  • Costa Rica comes in at number 1. Costa Ricans edge out Americans in life expectancy; they report being quite a bit more satisfied with their lives than do Americans; and the footprint of their country is less than a quarter that of this country.

Apparently we don’t need to overtax the planet in order to lead happy lives. From the report:

The results turn our idea of progress on its head. . . . A good life is possible without costing the Earth.

I learned about the Happy Planet Index from Annie Leonard, who did The Story of Stuff video. Her speech this fall at the Bioneers conference can be found here.

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2 Responses to Toward an Earthwise economy, part 2: Happy Planet Index

  1. I took the survey to measure my own well-being. The fact that I live in cohousing made the difference in some areas, I think, as it gives me more opportunity to interact with and rely on others. Great post, Priscilla!

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:December 7, 2009 at 4:25 pm

      Hi, Linda, I took the survey too, and while my life satisfaction is very high, one area that’s a bit weaker is social support–which is why, as you know, I consider moving into cohousing!