Measuring progress with the Happy Planet Index

One of our central critiques at Joy in Enough is that modern consumerist societies are bad at measuring progress. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the metric of choice, but it’s a very blunt instrument. As people have been saying for over half a century, GDP cannot capture what makes a life worthwhile, and it counts all kinds of negatives as positives. All that matters to GDP is that economic activity is increasing, with no regard for how that is achieved, or who benefits.

There are many alternatives to GDP, and other philosophies that reject the use of single metrics altogether. One of the alternatives is the Happy Planet Index, which has been recently updated for 2021.

Rather than focus narrowly on economic activity, the Happy Planet Index combines life expectancy, reported wellbeing, and ecological footprint. All of these matter in the real world. People want to life long and fulfilling lives in a clean and safe environment. If a country is to perform well on the Index, it has to succeed on all three fronts.

When mapped, the high performers on the HPI include some unexpected success stories:

Central and South America come out well on the HPI, for delivering good lives with a relatively low carbon footprint. Top of the class is Costa Rica, which manages a life expectancy of 80 years, average reported wellbeing at 7 out of 10, and all within an average 2.65 global hectares.

Conversely, countries can fail in different ways. Many African countries perform poorly on life expectancy. India does well on life expectancy but has very low reported wellbeing. And the US, which always comes out on top of purely economic indices, fails because of its enormous ecological footprint. Because of this, the US comes in at 127th in the global rankings.

How about the UK? We come in 14th, with life expectancy of 83, wellbeing at 7.16, but requiring 3.95 hectares each – well above a fair share of the earth’s resources.

The Happy Planet Index doesn’t give us a specific set of solutions, but it does offer a more honest way to think about progress. Why would we measure economic activity and not pay attention to real people’s lives and experiences? And how can we call countries successful when they undermine the basis of their future prosperity through environmental destruction? In the Old Testament, we often see success measured in the long term, with the expectation that land would be stewarded for generations to come. By factoring environmental accounting into our measurements, we can add this inter-generational responsibility back into our vision of progress.

In the 21st century, successful nations will have to look beyond economic growth to consider their environmental impact, and succeed within the parameters of sustainability. Alternative metrics such as the Happy Planet Index can help us to imagine what progress will look like in the age of climate change, and guide us towards a more holistic view of human flourishing.

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