The Happy Planet Index puts Costa Rica at number one in the world. A Costa Rican first describes what makes up the index and then how Costa Rican culture led to the top ranking:
Have you ever heard of the Happy Planet Index? As a Costa Rican, I hear about it quite a lot. Both the HPI, a project of the New Economics Foundation, and the lesser-known World Database of Happiness, assembled by a Dutch sociologist, put Costa Rica at the top of the rankings. This officially makes Costa Rica the most content country on the planet. (For once, we’re first in the world at something other than potholes per capita.)
The HPI is calculated from a combination of three factors: life expectancy, self-reported well-being, and ecological footprint. Thus, according to its own website, the HPI measures “how many long and happy lives [countries] produce per unit of environmental input.” That sounds like a mouthful at first, but once you think it through for a bit the concept seems to make sense. Traditional measures of wellbeing, such as GDP per capita, simply measure output. They don’t take into account environmental devastation brought about by industrialization or unhappiness stemming from social or economic inequality. The HPI, on the other hand, rewards countries with healthy, satisfied citizens for living within their ecological means. Thus, the HPI tells developing countries they shouldn’t aspire to the living standards of the United States or France, but rather to the smile production of Costa Rica…
My point here is that, in Costa Rica at least, happiness seems to stem partly from culture. It’s not at all controversial from an economic viewpoint to suggest a link between happiness and culture, and this is somewhat validated by the fact that five of the top ten countries in the latest HPI ranking are located in Central America, a relatively small and homogeneous region. One of those, El Salvador, has the highest murder rate in the world, and another, Nicaragua, displays levels of poverty one would expect from a war-ravaged Sub-Saharan nation. Living in either one of those (and I have for a time, in both) actually sounds like a pretty grim prospect to me, yet the HPI would have us believe that these countries are worth emulating.
Thus, we approach the core problem with the Happy Planet Index: Happiness and wellbeing are inextricably linked, but they cannot be reduced to the same thing. If Costa Rica got its act together and built better infrastructure (even at the expense of causing a little bit of damage to the environment) our wellbeing would be much higher—we would no longer have to endure endless traffic jams brought about by rock slides or sinkholes, for instance. Yet—here’s the key—our happiness wouldn’t change that much, because it’s largely a consequence of who we are as a people. Improved infrastructure is precisely the sort of advancement that shows up in measures like GDP per capita, and which the HPI ignores completely—forms of progress that undoubtedly change us for the better, though we remain as content as ever.
I’ve written about measuring happiness before (see here and here) but I don’t remember seeing this argument before about the Happy Planet Index: it is more dependent on culture than measures of material conditions. If you carry this argument to its conclusion, then great changes for the better or worse in Costa Rica wouldn’t affect people much.
I suspect it doesn’t exactly work this way. There are probably some thresholds that would affect happiness in Costa Rica and a lot of other countries. These would be similar to findings in the US that above a certain point, having more income doesn’t really change people’s happiness or well-being. There is an interplay between culture and material conditions; Marx may have suggested that culture is derived from those who control the means of production but others, including Weber, would argue that there is more of a back and forth. If the conditions changed a lot, the culture would have to respond and might change quite a bit as well.