It has been long established that national measures of wealth, such as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), do not tell the whole story of people’s lives. The search for a more inclusive representation of what is important has been on for a few decades. The Human Development Index (HDI), for example, was first published in 1990 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as a direct response to Amartya Sen’s capability approach. This Nobel Prize winning economist’s groundbreaking insights argued that governments should not only focus on increasing citizens’ monetary wealth, but on ensuring that they are able and capable of achieving their dreams, goals and full potential in the society they live in. The HDI, which was co-created by Sen himself, is a composite measure that takes into account the GDP, life expectancy and education levels in each country. Although it is still by no means perfect, since its conception, critiques of the HDI, namely measurement errors and the important things it still does not capture, have been incrementally addressed and incorporated into later versions. For example, the 2010 HDI was the first to factor in inequalities in the three mesaures between the world’s nations, creating a separate Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI). You can download the full 2011 country rankings here.
Since then, many other indexes and measures have been proposed, worked out and published. In 2006, Analytical Social Psychologist Adrian White, from Leicester University in England, produced the world’s first map to illustrate global rates of life satisfaction:
More recently, The Earth Institute at Columbia University in the United States has taken the trouble to report on the state of global self-reported subjective welbeing in their 2012 World Happiness Report. Meanwhile, the U.K.’s New Economics Foundation has married environmental concerns with human ones in their groundbreaking Happy Planet Index (HPI) that combines environmental efficiences of countries with how many long and happy lives they produce. The data can be viewed in map form for the entire HPI or split into its individual components on the index website and the following map offers a world view that takes the level of development of different components into consideration for each country:
The bottom line is that everyone is noticing that things like education, health and environmental sustainability matter. However, it is worth pointing out that one of the biggest correlates to happiness is still monetary income and, although many poorer nations are much more environmentally efficient than rich ones, few countries across the board offer any surprises in their wellness rankings that may not have been expected by looking at their national income figures. Those that do should serve as shining examples of how to do things right. For example, year after year Costa Rica, with a 2011 per capita income of only $12,000 (adjusted for purchasing power parity), ranks at the top of the Happy Planet Index, while the U.S., with an income of almost $50,000, places a miserable 105th; and that, in general, Latin Americans are the happiest people on earth. As for the majority of the rest of us, there is certainly a lot more to life than money, but it certainly seems to help.
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Ioulia Fenton leads food and agriculture research at INESAD.