Whitney Larrimore recently alerted me that still another list has been released purporting to tell the world what countries are happiest.  Costa RicaLeading the happiness parade in this accounting is Costa Rica.  The article that Whitney sent the url for had a slide show of the top ten countries.  I was surprised that none of the European social democracies that usually top these lists was in evidence.  Instead, there were countries like Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba.  What gives?  The land of sclerotic cold-war Communism is a place of joy?  I expected to see Sudan or Zimbabwe show up next.  

It turns out that the list—named the Happy Planet Index—was calculated by the New Economics Foundation, an English advocacy organization concerned with social issues and the environment.  The index isn’t designed to measure which places are happiest.  Instead, as the index’s website states, it aims to show “the relative efficiency with which nations convert the planet’s natural resources into long and happy lives for their citizens.”   To get the index, its developers in essence divided each nation’s “Happy Life Years” by its “Ecological Footprint.”  An “Ecological Footprint” is a variant of the per capita carbon footprint.  The authors don’t explain precisely how they calculate “Happy Life Years,” but they do indicate that it is a function of two indicators:  life expectancy at birth and answers to the life satisfaction question on the Gallup World Poll.  In other words, if you say you’re satisfied with your life and you’re likely to have a long life span, you have lots of “Happy Life Years.”  The statistic seems flawed.  If I’m totally dissatisfied with my life but will live a long time, I would have more Happy Life Years than if I was miserable and am expected to die young.  In the first case, shouldn’t I be said to have lots of “Miserable Life Years” rather than “Happy Life Years?”  

Anyway, the US doesn’t fare so well on the Happy Planet Index.  We have plenty of Happy Life Years, but use up a ridiculously large amount of carbon.  Thus, we land in 114th place, right between Madagascar and Nigeria.  Almost all the nations below us on the index are in sub-Saharan Africa, where Ecological Footprints are low but there aren’t many Happy Life Years to be had.

It’s easy to fault the Happy Planet Index for not really being a measure of happiness at all.  To do so, though, would be to accept the currently prevalent conception of happiness (i.e. as self-reported life satisfaction) in preference to another way of thinking of happiness that dates to Aristotle.  In that view, happiness is about a life well-lived, a life of virtue.  Certainly, there is more to virtue than limiting one’s impact on the environment, yet I don’t fault the Happy Planet folks for starting there.