The art and science of measuring happiness

Posted on 17 March 2014.

“GDP measures everything, except that which makes life worthwhile,” said Robert Kennedy in 1968. Nic Marks took these words to heart and designed an index that measures sustainable well-being.

How do you quantify happiness? In his Happy Planet Index, Nic Marks measures three components : “experienced well-being”, life expectancy and ecological footprint.

According to Marks, GDP and most otherpopular measures of“progress” only gauge economic activity: what we produce and what we consume. In his eyes, this method of calculation is outdated and does not provide an accurate assessment of people’s well-being. Marks was inspired to develop an alternative ranking, the Happy Planet Index, which measures what really matters in a society: the present and future happiness of the people who live in it.

Une conférence TED de Nick Marks de 2010, où il présente l’Happy Planet Index (anglais sous-titré français)
There are already a number of tools of this kind in existence. The Human Development Index (HDI) created by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is based on three main criteria: life expectancy, level of education and standard of living. “Soft domestic product,” an index of sustainable well-being andindicator of “genuine progress,” introduces non-commercial activities into the calculation of national wealth. Both of these indexes even take environmental costs into account.

Marks is seeking to find a lasting balance between sustainable development and quality of life. He takes the view that a nation’s ultimate goal is to create happy lives for its citizens and the level of natural resource use is an important factor in this calculation.

As a result the rich countries that consume the majority of the world’s resources are ranked lower on the Index, even if, like Denmark, they have a celebrated social model. In fact, the Central American nation of Costa Rica tops the ranking, as surprising as that may be. And yet Costa Ricans are said to live longer and better than Americans, with an ecological footprint that is three times smaller and the second-highest life expectancy in the Americas.