Infographic of the Day: Happiness Comes at a Price

Should we be measuring our world by something other than GDP and income levels?

You might think that something as amorphous as country-wide happiness would be hard to gauge, but demographers have given it a go nonetheless. The results of several studies are gathered in The Happy Planet Index.

Probably the key studies in the lot come from the 2005 Gallup World Poll and the World Values Survey, which surveyed thousands of people along dozens of dimensions, ranging from how satisfied people were with their economic prospects to their daily battles with sadness or anxiety. What comes out roughly accords with what you'd expect: Western countries are tremendously happy, developing countries somewhat less so, and poor countries rank last. (Greener is happier; redder is unhappier.)

[Click to go to the interactive version]

There are all kinds of granular insights in there -- the U.S. rates a 7.8 on the index, which is pretty happy. Germans, Italians, and French are relatively miserable among their riches, rating at around 7.1 The only rich country to fall below verdant levels of joy is Japan, which needs a therapist and a drug cocktail, stat: Their index is only 6.8, which ranks close to China and India. Canadians, meanwhile, enjoy a level of happiness, at 8.0, that seems to be the sole province of those tall, blond, beautiful Scandinavians.

What drives all that happiness and woe? As you might have guessed, the economy has a lot to do with it. Here, for example, is life expectancy, which roughly tracks GDP:

But here is where The Happy Planet Index starts looking a bit grim. The flip side of being rich and content is that you're devouring resources at the same time. Amorphous things such as a fulfilling job and bright economic prospects come at a profound cost to the planet. As we get rich, our carbon footprints swell, and our damage to the planet increases. Red shows a larger ecological footprint; green shows a smaller one:

All three of those separate results are then combined into one master map, which looks at how each country ranked along each metric. So if all three components are good, your country is green. But if all three are bad, your country is red. As a result, the Global Happiness Planet Index shows that no one country is truly doing great, if you take into account both how happy they are and how much they're destroying the earth in the process:

This might all seem a bit academic. But there are serious issues at work here. We're always taught to prize things such as GDP growth and income levels. But these have such a dark downside that even Nobel Prize winning economists have advocated that we start search for metrics of happiness that get away from purely economic measures. Granted, this is quixotic in the extreme. But the point is simply that with economic figures, growth always means long-term destruction (unless coal plants and oil disappear tomorrow, by magic). And if growth is the only thing anyone views as correlated with happiness -- well, your grand kids probably won't appreciate that so much, when the great outdoors becomes a nightmare.

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