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."

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.

More from Foreign Policy

A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.
A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

Xi’s Great Leap Backward

Beijing is running out of recipes for its looming jobs crisis—and reviving Mao-era policies.

A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.
A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.

Companies Are Fleeing China for Friendlier Shores

“Friendshoring” is the new trend as geopolitics bites.

German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.
German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.

Why Superpower Crises Are a Good Thing

A new era of tensions will focus minds and break logjams, as Cold War history shows.

Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.
Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.

The Mediterranean as We Know It Is Vanishing

From Saint-Tropez to Amalfi, the region’s most attractive tourist destinations are also its most vulnerable.