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Is there a correlation between happiness and carbon emissions?

The Happy Planet Index
HSW 2009


Typically, our environment and our social health are discussed in separate conversations, maybe blending together only after a catastrophic weather event or conflict. The Happy Planet Index (HPI), however, changes this separation.

The HPI is the New Economics Foundation's (NEF) solution for measuring how happy we are -- not through riches or power, but instead on the concept that what you give is what you get. Researchers use a formula to analyze a country's ecological efficiency (carbon footprint) in relation to the physical welfare (life expectancy) and emotional well-being (life satisfaction) of its population.

But while life expectancy rates and carbon footprints are objective measurements, putting numbers to life satisfaction is a bit trickier. To measure life satisfaction, NEF researchers surveyed individuals on a series of questions about varying aspects of daily life and life outlook and asked each to rank their responses on a scale of 0 to 10 (not at all satisfied to extremely satisfied). With this information they created the HPI equation:

Two coefficients of variance are introduced into the equation to ensure that both halves of the equation will match. To account for proportionate variations in c­arbon footprint distributions from country to country, a small constant (α) is added to the footprint. The product of life expectancy and life satisfaction is divided by the adjusted carbon footprint. That result is then multiplied by a constant (ß) to make sure all ranked countries fall onto the index scale of 1 to 100.

The result is a happiness rank for each country included in the index. There are currently 178 countries ranked on the Global HPI, and there's a separate European HPI ranking 30 countries.

Collectively, the HPI shows which countries are better or worse at translating energy consumption into happy, meaningful lives. The great insight is that big carbon footprints don't equal big happiness. No country's score indicates an overlooked paradise on Earth, but you may be surprised which nations are happier than others based on the HPI equation. The United Kingdom ranks relatively low, 108 out of 178, in the Global Index, whereas the small south Pacific island nation of Vanuatu ranks the happiest. Why didn't the U.K. outrank the small-scale economy of Vanuatu? The U.K. has an expanding carbon footprint and a population that self-reports low levels of happiness. In fact, the entire European continent's carbon footprint has increased by 70 percent since 1961 while happiness levels did not rise, and life expectancy only rose by a light 8 percent [source: BBC].

When you remove traditional economic wealth measurements from the equation, as the HPI does, countries that tread lightly on the planet come out on top. Gross domestic product (GDP) can't buy happiness, but perhaps reducing overall consumption of resources and putting emphasis on living a meaningful life can.