The Happy Planet Index: A New Measure of Societal Well-Being?

Photo by Southernpixel - Alby Headrick |

Photo by Southernpixel - Alby Headrick |

After World War II, a nation that was efficient at producing goods emerged as a picture of prosperity and societal well-being. In many ways, this model shaped the lives of our ancestors and thus our own lives: the prospect of war, gruesome as it was, provided the economic opportunity for much of the industrialized world to rise above the misery of the Great Depression, and facilitated a greater quality of life for those willing to work toward it. In this way, economic value became increasingly equated with true value, and economic prosperity with true progress and well-being. Eventually, the Gross Domestic Product of a nation became our defining indicator of the past century.  

But what do people truly want out of life? Is GDP the best measure of progress? Globally, when people are asked what they wish for most in life, their answer is exceedingly simple: happiness, love and health.  In fact, economic wealth is a distant fourth! If we compare our society from 50 years ago to today, we see that as the ecological footprint on the planet has increased, we are less efficient today at producing true well-being, that is, happy, healthy years of life. Thus, if we recognize that happiness takes precedence over material productivity, we can use the argument of efficiency to debunk a purely economic measure of well-being. In today’s globalized world, it is clear that GDP is too narrow a measure to describe our rapidly changing conditions.

The Happy Planet Index is a comprehensive measure of well-being based upon the notion that making life worthwhile involves both having a planet that is sustainable and a people that value social justice and are holistically happy. It defines a nation’s ‘success’ as its ability to create happy and healthy lives, and measures the efficiency with which countries use their natural resources to produce well-being in their citizens. So who is at the top of this list? The answer is likely to surprise: Costa Rica, despite its extraordinary availability of biodiversity and natural resources, demonstrates a prudent ecological footprint. Its government, one of the first to commit to being carbon-neutral by the year 2021, abolished the army in 1948 and has since invested heavily on social security, education and culture. Latin America as a whole teaches us that good lives don’t have to cost the earth on the enormous scale that developed nations have grown accustomed to. Canada and the USA, among the wealthiest nations in the world, rank 65th and 105th, respectively, with an ecological footprint per capita amongst the largest in the world.

Today, we face social environments dominated by uniformity, a uniformity that stifles creativity and inhibits prosperity.  Wouldn't it be, on the whole, a considerable improvement to our way of life if society did not base itself on trampling, crushing and treading on each other’s heels? In a decentralized society, variety would give individuals an identity of their own and help them find their way back to the values that industrialization has largely overlooked. The Happy Planet Index does just that-- it calls us to adopt the Art of Living, rather than trying to perfect the Art of Getting By.

Do you think the Happy Planet Index is a realistic measure of well-being? What actions might we take to better align ‘economic value’ with true value? Leave your comments below! Learn more about the Happy Planet Index at


History of GDP 

Nic Marks: The Happy Planet Index 

Edward Goldsmith’s ’A Blueprint for Survival’