What Makes a Planet Happy?

I find it hard to take seriously the concept of a happy planet. Is Earth happier than Mars? How would we know? It seems to me that only sentient beings can be happy, but that might just reflect the limited perspective of a sentient being. For all I know a rock might have a completely different perspective.

The happy planet index constructed by the New Economics Foundation (nef) doesn’t actually attempt to compare the happiness of different planets. What it attempts to do is to assess how happy our planet is with what is happening in different countries. I hope that makes you smile because if you take the happy planet index too seriously I think you are at risk of becoming unhappy – and that might make the planet unhappy!

The countries that are given the highest ratings in nef’s index are Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Guatemala and Vietnam. These places don’t seem to me to offer the ideal of a good life for the people who live in them, even though many of these people say they are satisfied with their lives.

The authors claim that the results show that a good life is possible without “costing the earth”. Andrew Norton has pointed out that the results do not support this conclusion. Average happiness levels are relatively low in several countries that are ranked among the top 50 in the happy planet index.

As defined by the nef the happy planet index is a productivity measure. The numerator (or output measure) is happy life years, measured by multiplying average life satisfaction levels by average life expectancy. The denominator (or input measure) is a linear function of the average “ecological footprint”, which is a measure of the total amount of land required to provide all resource requirements plus the amount of vegetated land required to absorb CO2 emissions.

The basic idea seems to be that “the planet” becomes happier when people in a particular country become happier without using more “land” or when people maintain their current happiness level while using less “land”.

How do we know that this is what makes the planet happier? How do we know that the planet cares whether or not humans are happy?

My point is that the happiness of the planet only exists in the mind of the human who thought up the idea of the happy planet index. There is nothing wrong with trying to imagine what it would be like to be a planet that has feelings, but this is a game that anyone can play. Some people could imagine, for example, that the happiness of the planet will rise if more CO2 is produced. After all, CO2 is food for plants and planets like plants. Don’t they?

It would be possible for everyone on earth to have their own happy planet index that takes account of the things that they imagine that the planet might value. It would probably be preferable, however, to come down to earth and acknowledge that there is potential for everyone on the planet to vary in the extent to which they value various things that are important to them.

If nef’s happy planet index serves a useful purpose I think it is to remind us that surveys that measure our subjective well-being do not necessarily take into account all the things that are important to us. When we report how satisfied we are with life we take account of the things that are most salient to us at the time. We don’t necessarily take into account our own future well-being and the well-being of future generations of family members, let alone the well-being of other relatives and friends, the well-being of other humans, the well-being of animal pets, the well-being of other living things, or other matters that might be important to us.

5 comments to What Makes a Planet Happy?

  • I think you may be missing the point of why people involved in alternative economic ideas try to develop indexes of well-being. It is primarily a statement about the limitation of using GDP as a measurement of whether things are going well. For example, using GDP production of weapons is seen as equally beneficial to production of food.

    Obviously there will be limitations in any system that tries convert the complexity of life into a single figure, but to my mind it is a worthy task.

  • Michael:
    I agree that happiness research is motivated in part by the limitations of GDP as a measure of well-being. I have recently written a journal article entitled “Gross National Happiness” which discusses the merits of different ways of measuring well-being. A draft can be found here:
    http://sites.google.com/site/wintonbates/ .

    I don’t think the complexity of life can be converted into a single figure. The people who try to do this may have the best of motives and I commend them for that. But I don’t think the results of those efforts should be taken seriously.

  • thanks Winton
    I read your article and was impressed by the depth and breadth of your research.
    I am not an economist – but this is how I see the issue;-
    When I read that the study of economics is based on the idea that human wants are insatiable, I think it is incredibly important that economists look at the question of what is it that really makes us happy. i think the idea that satisfying insatiable wants will create a better world of happier more fulfilled people is incredibly simplistic on spiritual, psychological and material levels. The late Michael Jackson is a good (if extreme) example of what a destructive, unhappy path that is.

    To me what really points to the absurdity of the whole thing is the reaction that occurs when GDP goes into the negative – even by a fraction of a percent. By the cries of disaster we hear, one would think there has been a plague or a massive terrorist attack, or another tsunami disaster. Yet what it points to is that we have marginally reduced production in a country that is obviously already suffering from overproduction. Surely that is a good thing.

  • Michael:
    I agree with the first part of your comment – about the futility of attempting to satisfy insatiable wants. Happiness research is reinforcing the ancient wisdom about such matters – and an increasing number of people are taking notice.

    However, I don’t think it is absurd for people to react to recession as though a disaster has occurred. Recession is a disaster for those people who lose their jobs. There is a substantial windfall loss in income for these people, often accompanied by relationship and health problems. This is also reflected in measures of subjective well-being.

    Your comment opens up the whole question of what economic growth is really about, which too big a topic for me to deal with adequately here. But I will try. One of the important things that we have learned in economics about 40 years ago is that growth is largely about the advance of knowledge (technological progress) and the more efficient use of existing knowledge (productivity catch-up). Among other things, growth has enabled a lot of people to live longer and healthier lives. A lot of people in low income countries also want these benefits of economic growth. If this is to happen without large adverse environmental impacts we will need a lot more advances in knowledge.

    That is a bit garbled, but the point I am trying to make is that apart from anything else a stationary state in terms of advance of knowledge (zero economic growth at a global level) would probably not be an attractive option for the environment.

  • Thank you for your comments, I really appreciate the opportunity to discuss these matters.
    Your point that negative growth creates unemployment, to my mind goes to the heart of the issue. I don’t dispute that unemployment causes suffering to the individuals who lose their jobs as well as to the wider community. It just seems to me that it is a completely unnecessary suffering. With our enormously productive technology, even if production goes down by a few percent, (creating unemployment) we still can easily produce enough for everyone. It seems to me the problem of unemployment is not that their labour is needed to enable us to produce enough. (It isn’t hard to put an argument that we are producing far too much.) Rather, the unemployment problem is a problem of distribution.

    The fact that working to earn a living is the way we have devised to enable us to gain access to the fruits of our production, means that when we aren’t working/earning, we can’t access the things we need to live. Working for a living has become our means to survival even if the things that that work produces contribute nothing or are even destructive to our well being/survival. To me this is where the absurdity lies.
    Once we have produced what is needed for our level of lifestyle then it is absurd to go on working (and producing) simply to get the means to access the things that had already been produced.

    My response to the second part of your comment is that I am in no way advocating a halt in the development of our culture. I’m just saying that measuring advances in money terms is using a scale that less and less reflects the actuality of the real world. Tying technological advance to across the board economic growth is just the other side of the absurdity I mentioned when we cry disaster when growth goes marginally negative. I cannot see that producing excess, wasteful and even destructive things to help us advance our knowledge is anything but us acting from a paradigm that is fundamentally flawed and absurd. It is just as necessary for our environment to rid ourselves of this abstract need to overproduce as it is to develop new technologies that lessen our environmental impact.

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