According to its website, the Happy Planet Index (HPI) “is an innovative measure that shows the ecological efficiency with which human well-being is delivered around the world. It is the first ever index to combine environmental impact with well-being to measure the environmental efficiency with which country by country, people live long and happy lives.” Importantly, “the Index doesn’t reveal the ‘happiest’ country in the world. It shows the relative efficiency with which nations convert the planet’s natural resources into long and happy lives for their citizens. The nations at the top of the index aren’t the happiest places in the world, but the nations that score well show that achieving long, happy lives without over-stretching the planet’s resources is possible.”
You might be surprised to know that the country with the highest HPI is Costa Rica. That is, it most efficiently generates the highest levels of well-being amongst its citizens. It’s no surprise then that even though Costa Rica uses less than a quarter of the resources most western countries use, a Gallup poll released last summer (2010) ranked it as the 6th happiness nation on Earth. How is Costa Rica accomplishing this? According to Nic Marks, “99 percent of their electricity comes from renewable resources, their government is one of the first to commit to being carbon neutral by 2021, they abolished the army in 1949 and invested in social programs like healthcare and education. Now, they have one of the highest literacy rates in Latin America.” In a place where the average life expectancy is higher than the United States’, the citizens of Costa Rica are flourishing because the government is focusing on how it can efficiently use their resources to improve the well-being of its citizens – not just on how they can make the most ipods.
The United States, on the other hand, has a HPI of 114 – just one place above Nigeria. This shouldn’t be too surprising, the average American citizen uses more than triple the resources of the average person. And even though the GDP has more than quadrupled since the end of World War Two, the subjective well-being of Americans hasn’t budged in the last fifty years. The United States, in other words, isn’t getting its bang for the buck in terms of the well-being of its citizens.
Why? One reason is that we are too focused on money and materials. Yes, money is important, but research clearly shows that its returns diminish after a certain point. And yes, materials are important, but research likewise tells us that having too much stuff and having too many choices makes us worse off. As one author explains, “most of us feel that having more choices available to us – when seeking a mate, choosing a career, shopping for a new stove, etc. – is always desirable. But while having some choice is generally good, it seems that having too many options tends to undermine our feelings of satisfaction, no matter what we choose.” Other studies demonstrate similar trends. Psychologists know that people are more happy when they spend money on experiences and other people as opposed to materials and themselves; in a society where the latest gadgets are deemed essential and individualism rules, these findings should turn some heads.
Meanwhile, what contributes most to well-being – strong social circles, healthy romantic relationships, a sense of meaning and accomplishment – isn’t captured by the GNP, the bank statements or the sales records. And instead of recalibrating our values to focus on obtaining these intangibles, too many continue to concentrate on more money, more stuff and obsess with “the numbers” only to worsen the problem. Robert Kennedy pointed out this backward reasoning nearly 40 years ago. In his words:
The GNP counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them…. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl…. Yet it does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of public debate or the integrity of our public officials… it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.
Whereas countries like Costa Rica are more focused on understanding how it can use their resources to achieve these impalpable but essential components – those things which make life worthwhile – the United States is still preoccupied with money and stuff being the principle means for achieving a fulfilling life and creating a successful economy. But as Derek Bok explains in his book The Politics of Happiness, “those who attach great importance to achieving wealth tend to suffer above-average unhappiness and disappointment… [and] the more people care about becoming rich, the less satisfaction they tend to derive from their family life.” Alexander Tocqueville outlined this problem well before Kennedy and Bok. In his seminal text Democracy in America he wrote:
In American I have seen the freest and best educated of men in circumstances the happiest to be found in the world; yet it seemed to me that a cloud habitually hung on their brow, and they seemed serious and almost sad even in their pleasure. The chief reason for this is that… [they] never stop thinking of the good things they have not got.
And that was back in 1835, when Carnegie and Rockefeller were babies and Fifth avenue wasn’t even Fifth avenue.
What should change? Several things. First, we need to begin judging the success of individuals, institutions and nations by how well-off they are, not how rich and powerful they are. Second, we need to pay more attention to what science is now understanding about what makes us happy so we can promote human flourishing. And third, as Nic Marks advocates, we need to do these things by using our resources more efficiently.
To be sure, improving the well-being of the citizens of the United States and of the world is much more than the tweaking of a few economic plans or paying more attention to positive psychology. We also need to shift our attitude and realize that happiness is not an expectation. People before the 17th and 18th centuries knew this all too well. Greek mythology, ancient Egypt and cultures throughout the Mediterranean before and after Christ perpetuated the idea that happiness was almost always a miracle. This is why, as Darrin M. McMahon explains in his book Happiness: A History, luck and fate are almost always cognates for happiness in Indo-European languages. In English, for instance, the root of happiness comes from the Middle English and Old Norse happ, which meant chance and fortune and shows up in the words “perhaps,” “happens,” happenstance,” and “haphazard.” In Spanish and Portuguese the words felicidad and felicidade stem from the latin world felix, which means luck, sometimes fate. And in Serbo-Croatian the word srecan means happiness and luck and is found in the phrases sretna okolnost (lucky circumstance) and imati srecu (to happen upon or have luck).
After the Enlightenment, things changed. Happiness went from being elusive to being an entitlement. The pursuit of it was a “self-evident truth,” which was to be pursued here on Earth, as Thomas Jefferson famously declared. Jefferson was onto something. Citizens of democracies tend to be happier than citizens of autocracies and anocracies. It is not a miracle to be happy but it is still hard: Anti-depression prescriptions are at an all time high, divorce rates in the United States are around 50 percent, around 30 million Americans suffer from chronic insomnia and about 50 million live with chronic pain; it is still something that we happen upon as the etymology illustrates. Hopefully, conceiving of happiness as something to work towards as opposed to something we are born with will allow us to change our strategies for the better. And when we are happy – to return to Nic Marks’ point – it is coming at too heavy a cost. As Costa Rica demonstrates, people can be happy on only a quarter of the resources of Americans.
Combining Marks’ point with the psychological data, which now tells us that more money and choices are not reliable sources of long-term life satisfaction, the stars should start aligning: If we want to be better off, and few rational people would deny this basic assumption, we should use psychological data to improve life and to inform economic decisions and policies. Luckily, what contributes most to well-being is not nearly as harmful to Earth than what contributes least. The greatest sources of happiness are our friends and family – priceless intangibles with infinite returns. On the other hand, what we measure success with – commodities and wealth – have diminishing returns and are costly for our wallets and the planet.
Let’s reverse this.