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Happy Planet Index

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Happy Planet Index

Map showing countries shaded by their position in the Happy Planet Index (2006). The highest-ranked countries are bright green; the lowest are brown.

The Happy Planet Index (HPI) is an index of human well-being and environmental impact that was introduced by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) in July 2006. The index is weighted to give progressively higher scores to nations with lower ecological footprints.

The index is designed to challenge well-established indices of countries’ development, such as the gross domestic product (GDP) and the Human Development Index (HDI), which are seen as not taking sustainability into account. In particular, GDP is seen as inappropriate, as the usual ultimate aim of most people is not to be rich, but to be happy and healthy.[1] Furthermore, it is believed that the notion of sustainable development requires a measure of the environmental costs of pursuing those goals.[2]

Out of the 178 countries surveyed in 2006, the best scoring countries were Vanuatu, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominica, and Panama, although Vanuatu is absent from all later indices.[3] In 2009 Costa Rica was the best scoring country among the 143 analyzed, followed by the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Guatemala and Vietnam. Tanzania, Botswana and Zimbabwe were featured at the bottom of the list.[4]

For the 2012 ranking, 151 countries were compared, and the best scoring country for the second time in a row was Costa Rica, followed by Vietnam, Colombia, Belize and El Salvador. The lowest ranking countries in 2012 were Botswana, Chad and Qatar.[5][6]


The HPI is based on general utilitarian principles — that most people want to live long and fulfilling lives, and the country which is doing the best is the one that allows its citizens to do so, whilst avoiding infringing on the opportunity of future people and people in other countries to do the same. In effect it operationalises the IUCN's (World Conservation Union) call for a metric capable of measuring 'the production of human well-being (not necessarily material goods) per unit of extraction of or imposition upon nature'.[7]

Human well-being is operationalised as happy life expectancy.[8] Extraction of or imposition upon nature is proxied for using the ecological footprint per capita, which attempts to estimate the amount of natural resources required to sustain a given country's lifestyle. A country with a large per capita ecological footprint uses more than its fair share of resources, both by drawing resources from other countries, and also by causing permanent damage to the planet which will impact future generations.[9]

As such, the HPI is not a measure of which are the happiest countries in the world. Countries with relatively high levels of life satisfaction, as measured in surveys, are found from the very top (Colombia in 6th place) to the very bottom (the USA in 114th place) of the rank order. The HPI is best conceived as a measure of the environmental efficiency of supporting well-being in a given country. Such efficiency could emerge in a country with a medium environmental impact (e.g. Costa Rica) and very high well-being, but it could also emerge in a country with only mediocre well-being, but very low environmental impact (e.g. Vietnam).

Each country’s HPI value is a function of its average subjective life satisfaction, life expectancy at birth, and ecological footprint per capita. The exact function is a little more complex, but conceptually it approximates multiplying life satisfaction and life expectancy, and dividing that by the ecological footprint. Most of the life satisfaction data is taken from the World Values Survey and World Database of Happiness, but some is drawn from other surveys, and some is estimated using statistical regression techniques.


Much criticism of the index has been due to commentators incorrectly understanding it to be a measure of personal happiness, when it is in fact a measure of the "happiness" of the planet, in other words of the ecological efficiency of supporting well-being (see, for example, the following blogs in Heavy Lifting[10] and Spiked).[11]

Aside from that, criticism has focused on the following:

  • The HPI completely ignores issues such as political freedom, human rights and labor rights.[12]
  • The World Values Survey covers only a minority of the world's nations and is only carried out every five years. As a result, much of the data for the index must comes from other sources or is estimated using regressions.
  • The subjective measures of well-being are suspect.[13]
  • The ecological footprint is a controversial and much criticized concept.[14]

The index has been criticised for weighting the carbon footprint too heavily, to the point that the U.S. would have had to be universally happy and would have had to have a life expectancy of 439 years to equal Vanuatu's score in the 2006 index.[15]

Nevertheless, the HPI and its components have been considered in political circles. The ecological footprint, championed by the European Commission. The HPI itself was cited in 2007 in the British Conservative Party as a possible substitute for GDP.[16] A 2007 review of progress indicators produced by the European Parliament[17] lists the following pros and cons to using the HPI as a measure of national progress:


  • Considers the actual ‘ends’ of economic activity in the form of life satisfaction and longevity
  • Combines well being and environmental aspects
  • Simple and easily understandable scheme for calculating the index
  • Comparability of results (‘EF’ and ‘life expectancy’ can be applied to different countries)
  • Data online available, although some data gaps remain
  • Mixture of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ criteria; takes into account people’s well-being and resource use of countries


  • ‘Happiness’ or ‘life satisfaction’ are very subjective and personal: cultural influences and complex impact of policies on happiness
  • Confusion of name: index is not a measure of happiness but rather a measure of environmental efficiency of supporting well-being in a given country

International rankings

2012 ranking

Nine out of the ten top countries are located in the Caribbean Basin, despite high levels of poverty. The ranking is led by Costa Rica for the second time in a row, and its lead is due to its very high life expectancy which is second highest in the Americas, and higher than the U.S., experienced well-being higher than many richer nations and a per capita footprint one third the size of the U.S. Among the top 40 countries by overall HPI score, only four countries have a GDP per capita of over US$15,000. The highest ranking OECD country is Israel in 15th place, and the top Western European nation is Norway in 29th place, just behind New Zealand in 28th.[6][18][19] Among the top five world's biggest economies in terms of GDP, Japan has the highest ranking in 45th place, followed by Germany in 46th, France is placed 50th, China 60, and the U.S. is ranked 105, mainly due to its environmental footprint of 7.2, the seventh highest of all countries rated for the 2012 index.[20]

See also



  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ Marks, N., Abdallah, S., Simms, A., Thompson, S. et al. (2006). The Happy Planet Index 1.0. New Economics Foundation.
  4. ^ Abdallah, S., Thompson, S., Michaelson, J., Marks, N., Steuer, N. et al. (2009). The Happy Planet Index 2.0. New Economics Foundation.
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b
  7. ^ Adams WM (2006). The future of sustainability: Re-thinking environment and development in the twenty-first century. Report of the IUCN Renowned Thinkers Meeting. Also, Paehlke R (2005). Sustainability as a bridging concept. Conservation Biology 19:36-8.
  8. ^ Veenhoven R (1996). Happy life expectancy: a comprehensive measure of quality-of-life in nations. Social Indicators Research 39:1-58.
  9. ^ Ecological Footprint - Ecological Sustainability. Global Footprint Network.
  10. ^ Heavy Lifting - thoughts and web finds by an economist. Heavy Lifting. July 12, 2006
  11. ^ Who’s happiest: Denmark or Vanuatu?. Spiked. August 7, 2006
  12. ^ Steffan, Alex. Happy Planet Index. World Changing. July 12, 2006
  13. ^ Johns H & Ormerod P (2007). Happiness, Economics and Public Policy. London: The Institute of Economic Affairs
  14. ^ The Economist. September 19, 2002. "Treading Lightly".
  15. ^
  16. ^ Cameron to offer green tax cuts. The Sunday Times. September 9, 2007.
  17. ^ Goossens Y, et al. (2007). Alternative progress indicators to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a means towards sustainable development. IP/A/ENVI/ST/2007-10. Study provided for the European Parliament's Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety. [1]
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^

External links

  • The Happy Planet Index
  • Official website of the New Economics Foundation
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