Which is the greenest, happiest country in the world?

Happiness, economy and society put together – and measured

For years we have thought that wealthy Western countries produce the happiest people. But when compared with the amount of our planet´s resources used to achieve that well-being, those Western countries do not measure up so well. Happy Planet Index assesses happiness, economy and society collectively. And the results are interesting.

Text: Anna Gustafsson Photo: Shutterstock

There are several ways to evaluate the development and progress of a nation. While many rankings are now in existence, each one has the same countries, with very little variation, competing for the top position. But there is a study that takes a completely new approach – with new results.

The Happy Planet Index, which published its most recent ranking this summer, takes a look at health and happiness of people, but compares them against sustainability and the country´s ecological footprint. So countries where people have long, healthy and happy lives, but use less of the planet´s resources to achieve that goal, rise up in the list. Interestingly, the top spots are not taken by the usual wealthy Western countries.

For many years, Costa Rica has been number one, as also in the most recent results for 2016. The countries in the top 10 are mostly from South America and the Asian Pacific. The first European country, Norway, is found in the 12th position. Finland is ranked number 37.

Dr Lucie Middlemiss is a researcher and lecturer on sustainability at the University of Leeds’ School of Earth and Environment. In her research, she concentrates on the boundary between social and environmental issues. She welcomes new ways to measure a country´s development.

“I definitely think one measure, like looking at the GDP, is not enough, to get a clear picture of what is happening in a country. You need a range of measurements to reliably study human development or sustainable development. So in this sense, the Happy Planet Index is an improvement, as it does not look only at economic development, which is the approach that most nations take.”

However, Dr Middlemiss believes solving environmental issues does not necessarily make people happy.

“I find the association of environmental issues and happiness problematic. We in rich countries can choose to put happiness as our life objective, but the reality of life for many others is more brutal than that,” she explains.

This is why the Happy Planet Index uses several factors in its calculations. It derives results for happiness through a Gallup World Poll, where people are asked how satisfied they are in general with their lives, and outcomes for life expectancy are based on data collected by the United Nations. And for the ecological footprint, data is collected from the Global Footprint Network.

While the Happy Planet Index takes into consideration the inequality of outcome, it does not measure how well human rights are actualised in each country. Dr Middlemiss perceives this as an issue.

“The problem with looking at developing countries is that we often have a patronising attitude. I see it with my students, who after visiting a developing country come back saying how friendly and happy everyone was, despite being poor,” she observes.

“But if you look at countries like Mexico or Colombia that score high on the Happy Planet Index, they have lots of social problems. For example, Bangladesh, which is also in the top 10, has a massive poverty issue. You need to think of a range of things that a country would need to be a success story,” she adds.

One of the upsides is to look at the growth of enterprises in developing countries (listed in the Happy Planet Index) that are progressing economically. As companies conducting businesses in a sustainable way can have a big impact on the overall development, well-being and happiness of people in a given country, the Happy Planet Index’s idea to expand the measures of well-being is a welcome change.

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