Nic Marks, creator of the Happy Planet Index, explains why we need to measure success differently

The Happy Planet Index measures what matters: sustainable wellbeing for all. It tells us how well nations are doing at achieving long, happy, sustainable lives.

Wealthy Western countries, often seen as the standard of success, do not rank highly on the Happy Planet Index.  Instead, several countries in Latin America and the Asia Pacific region lead the way by achieving high life expectancy and wellbeing with much smaller Ecological Footprints.

The Happy Planet Index provides a compass to guide nations, and shows that it is possible to live good lives without costing the Earth.

How is the Happy Planet Index calculated?

The Happy Planet Index combines four elements to show how efficiently residents of different countries are using environmental resources to lead long, happy lives.

Wellbeing: How satisfied the residents of each country say they feel with life overall, on a scale from zero to ten, based on data collected as part of the Gallup World Poll.

Life expectancy: The average number of years a person is expected to live in each country based on data collected by the United Nations.

Inequality of outcomes: The inequalities between people within a country, in terms of how long they live, and how happy they feel, based on the distribution in each country’s life expectancy and wellbeing data. Inequality of outcomes is expressed as a percentage.

Ecological Footprint: The average impact that each resident of a country places on the environment, based on data prepared by the Global Footprint Network. Ecological Footprint is expressed using a standardized unit: global hectares (gha) per person.

For more information about how the Happy Planet Index is calculated, download the Methods Paper.

Why do we need the Happy Planet Index?

Until recently, we have lived with the widespread belief that the world is steadily becoming a better place. An increasingly unstable global economy, rising inequalities, and the pressing challenges of climate change have begun to shatter that belief. Recent surveys reveal that majorities in both the USA and Europe have said they no longer think life is getting better.

One cause of these interlinked crises is the stubborn prioritisation of economic growth as the central objective of government, trumping all other objectives. People vote for political parties that they perceive to be most capable of delivering a strong economy, and policy makers prioritise policies that increase in GDP as a result. Doing so has led to short-termism, deteriorating social conditions, and paralysis in the face of climate change.

In fact, GDP growth on its own does not mean a better life for everyone, particularly in countries that are already wealthy. It does not reflect inequalities in material conditions between people in a country. It does not properly value the things that really matter to people like social relations, health, or how they spend their free time. And crucially, ever-more economic growth is incompatible with the planetary limits we are up against.

Can you really measure happiness reliably?

To measure wellbeing, we use data from a globally renowned survey that asks respondents questions about how they feel their lives are going overall. The question we use, known as the Cantril Self-Anchoring Scale or the Ladder of Life, has been used in surveys since the 1960s, and its validity has been demonstrated in a range of different contexts around the world.

There is a growing evidence-base showing that subjective measures of wellbeing correlate with more objective measures such as measurement of stress hormones and brain scans. Subjective wellbeing has been found to accurately predict a range of outcomes – from how long someone will stay in a job or stay married, to how long they live, to the results of elections. As a result, psychologists, sociologists and economists now regularly use subjective wellbeing data in research, and policy makers are beginning to use to inform decision-making. For example, in 2015 the Prime Minister of the UK created a centre dedicated to understanding what government can do to increase wellbeing.

Importantly, by asking a single broad question, it allows the people completing the survey to decide what is important to them: to assess the issues according to their own criteria, to weight each one as they choose, and to produce an overall response. 

Why adjust for inequality of outcomes?

People across the world are experiencing the impact of growing inequalities – both in terms of the underlying failures of social justice, and the negative effect it has on other outcomes. The 2016 Happy Planet Index includes a component for ‘inequality of outcomes’ to account for this, adjusting the average wellbeing and life expectancy in each country downwards to account for inequalities in each of these outcomes.

For more information about how Happy Planet Index scores are adjusted to take account of inequalities in wellbeing and life expectancy, download the Methods Paper.

What doesn't the Happy Planet Index measure?

The abuse and violation of human rights is a grave problem affecting people across the world – including some of the countries that rank highest in the Happy Planet Index.

The wellbeing and life expectancy data used to calculate The Happy Planet Index scores for each countrycapture an overall sense of how people are doing in a nation. Although the infringement of human rights negatively impacts on the wellbeing and life expectancy of some people in a country, the Happy Planet Index is based on average figures for the population as a whole. As it is likely that people directly affected by extreme human rights abuses represent a minority, the population average wellbeing score may not fully reflect this harm.

More information about human rights abuses around the world can be found on the Amnesty International website.


Why isn't there a Happy Planet Index score for every country?

We rely on the availability of robust data from the United Nations, Gallup World Poll and the Global Footprint Network to calculate the Happy Planet Index score for each individual country. Unfortunately, that data isn’t available for every country.

For more information on the sources of data used to calculate Happy Planet Index scores, download the Happy Planet Index Methods Paper.

For more information about the Happy Planet Index, download the Briefing paper or the complete Happy Planet Index 2016 data.