a happy planet?

Part 4 in a series on the happiness gap


I’ve written about why conservatives report being happier than liberals, based on factors like faith and marriage.

None of this takes account of economic well-being, which is just as well. Money doesn’t make you happy.  Or poverty either.  I love the text in Proverbs that prays for neither poverty or riches.

Happiness, however, is personal. Unfortunately, it’s not hard to make it political.

Take the Happy Planet Index, for example.  By this scale the ten happiest countries in the world are all developing countries.  In fact, Costa Rico is the happiest of all.  (See pictures of happy people in Costa Rico here. ) And even though it is the second poorest country in the hemisphere, Nicaragua comes in at the eighth happiest place to be in the whole world.

The US, of course, is an unhappy place, ranked 105 in the world.  This is true even though we report ourselves as being as happy as the people in the Costa Rico.

How so?  Because the HPI takes into account the ecological footprint, “a per capita measure of the amount of land required to sustain a country’s consumption patterns.”  It is  a Western measure of guilt, not a global metric of happiness.

Here is how it works.  On a scale of 1 to 10,  people in the US (ranks 105) rate themselves at 7.2 while the people in Sudan (ranks 101) rank themselves at 4.5.  But if you take into account how much stuff we buy and how much space we have to produce it, Sudan is a happier place than the US.

Seriously, they must be giddy with excitement, even if they can’t drink the water.  People in such poverty can not afford the luxury of contemplating how happy they are.  They lack the time or energy to contemplate their ecological footprint.

Few people do. But the scale is skewed in so many ways. I just got back from Argentina (ranks 57 to our 105), and they are clearly not that much happier than we are.

In fairness, of course, the index does not claim to measure how happy people are, but how happy the planet is, which turns the notion of happiness on its head.  People are happy.  Planets are, well, planets.

I’m not denying a responsibility for the thoughtful stewardship of creation. I’m not denying that our stuff creates stress, either. I’m just pointing out that happiness is not a consequence of social engineering or political propaganda.

What we achieve, how it relates to our values, the creative effort it required—these all are more compelling indicators than the number of hectares available divided by measures of consumption.

We can make the plant healthier.

But we can’t make it happy.


See also in this series:




1 thought on “a happy planet?”

  1. Best line in the post, “It is a Western measure of guilt, not a global metric of happiness.”

    When I traveled to Nicaragua a couple years ago on a service project I stayed in a Rural Village outside of Esteli. The village had no electricity, no running water, and most children didn’t go to school past grade 5. Were people happy? I was happy not to have my iPhone, and laptop, and sleep in a hammock for a couple of weeks. Happiness for the family I stayed with, I agree was personal. They cooked over a fire, and the chickens under my hammock were annoying at 4:00am each morning.

    Jose Carlos was a gracious hosts, he valued family, and relationships. My two weeks made me think about being content, and investing in people more.

    Thanks for the thoughts on a happy planet. What a silly idea. (and that is coming from a biology teacher)

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