|The Happy Planet Index formula
Why think of these together? What comfort is it if we are becoming more and more happy if we are polluting the very system that sustains us and allows us to seek lives of happiness and well-being?
The World Happiness Report is the fourth to be released – the first one being in 2012. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the happiest nations on Earth are the western-styled nations, with the Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden) along with Switzerland, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand and Australia making up the top 10.
At the other end of the scale the bottom 10 are made up of eight African nations, plus Afghanistan and Syria. Undoubtedly the war in these two nations have significant impacts upon the happiness levels of people living in those nations.
However, a table in the World Happiness Report traces the changes in happiness from 2005-07 to 2013-15. It is noteworthy that all of the top 10 happiest nations had either no increase in their happiness levels in that time, or decreased in happiness.
Yet, as Overshoot Day illustrates, in that time we have consumed more and more and wasted more and more. In 2005 Overshoot Day was 29 August, and in 2013 it fell on 10 August – almost three weeks earlier.
Overshoot Day is calculated by comparing our ecological footprint with our biocapacity1 and determining when our ecological footprint overshoots our biocapacity. If we look at the ecological footprint on a per capita country-by-country basis then a disturbing fact emerges. Of the ten happiest nations on Earth, all of them are in the top 31 most unsustainable nations on Earth in terms of their ecological impact. In fact, three of them, Australia (2nd), Canada (4th) and Sweden (9th) are amongst the ten most unsustainable nations on Earth (per capita).
Are we in the western-styled nations exulting in our happiness at the expense of an ever unhappier planet?
Our consuming and wasting lifestyles are not providing us with greater levels of happiness. Indeed, it could be asked whether the deterioration of the eco-system that we live in has a negative impact upon our happiness levels? if that is true, then indications are that levels of depression, anxiety and suicide are likely to continue to rise over the coming decades.
This all begs the question: can we be happy and live sustainable lives at the same time?
Another index is helpful when considering how to answer this question. The Happy Planet Index (HPI) produced by the new economics foundation in the UK combines four elements to calculate the HPI. The four elements are: well-being, life expectancy, inequality of outcomes, and ecological footprint.
When this formula is applied on a country-by-country basis we get an altogether different picture of the relationship between happiness and sustainability. Those top ten happiest nations slip embarrassingly backward. Highest is Norway at 12th, but then the rest fare badly indeed with Sweden at 61st, Canada 85th and Australia not even making the top 100 – at 105th. 140 nations make up the HPI listing.
At the top of the rankings (for the third time) is Costa Rica which abolished its army in 1949 and diverted defence spending to education, health, and pensions. The Caribbean nation obtains 99% of it’s electricity from renewable resources and has committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2021.
It would seem that it is possible for humans to be happy and for the planet to be happy also. It takes commitment. Do we have it?
1. Ecological footprint is defined as the area of biologically productive land and water required to produce all the resources a population consumes plus the ability to absorb the waste it generates. Biocapacity refers to the capacity of ecosystems to regenerate what people demand from these systems. It is the capacity to produce the biological materials used by humans and absorb the waste material generated by humans.