In Box

Happy Math

Happiness economics is all the rage right now. It attempts to measure indicators of life satisfaction with the same rigor that economists have long applied to financial indicators. Academics and politicians now talk of "gross national happiness" and gross national product in the same breath. So, who could object to something so benignly named as ...

Happiness economics is all the rage right now. It attempts to measure indicators of life satisfaction with the same rigor that economists have long applied to financial indicators. Academics and politicians now talk of "gross national happiness" and gross national product in the same breath. So, who could object to something so benignly named as the "Happy Planet Index"? Well, a lot of economists find its results baffling: The Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu tops the list, strife-ridden Colombia comes in second, Fidel Castro’s Cuba sixth. The United States ends up at 150, two spots behind Burkina Faso.

The index supposedly "strips our view of the economy back to its absolute basics" by measuring life satisfaction and expectancy against resources consumed. Nic Marks, whose London-based New Economics Foundation’s Centre for Well-Being compiled the rankings, explains that "there are other environmental and well-being indicators, but this is the first one that brings the two together." But Robert Stavins, director of the Environmental Economics Program at Harvard University, says that "all that this index reflects is the ideological inclinations of the people who produced it."

The index might have actually hurt the concept that there’s more to economics than wealth, argues Daniel Drezner, a political scientist at Tufts University. The Happy Planet Index approach is "so obviously suited toward what they think happiness should be, as opposed to what everyone else does, that it is very easily discounted."

If you still want to test the results for yourself, a 15-year residence permit for Vanuatu will set you back a little under $900,000. Maybe money can buy you happiness after all.

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