Happiness report seeks to promote sustainability over GNP

World Happiness Report cover

The World Happiness Report is an ambitious effort by academics to, as they say, recast the environmental debate by changing fundamental objectives from economic growth to building and sustaining the quality of lives.

The report issued this month became well-known because it figured in a United Nations seminar on happiness Monday sponsored by the Government of Butan. That nation has, since 1972, used a gross national happiness index to assist with national policy.

The best known author of the report is Jeffrey Sachs, the director of The Earth Institute at New York’s Columbia University. He also was Director of the U.N. Millennium Project from 2002 to 2006 and special adviser to U. N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. The Millennium Development Goals are the international agreement to reduce extreme poverty, disease, and hunger by the year 2015.

Other principal authors are John F. Helliwell, professor emeritus of economics, University of British Columbia, and Richard Layard, director, Well-being Programme, Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics.

The report has no new data. Instead it uses existing surveys and tries to integrate some of them to assess the happiness of the nations of the world. The report notes that happiness is subjective.

One of the most universal measures is the Gallup World Poll in which the internationally known survey company sought responses from about 1,000 persons in more than 150 countries. Respondents were asked to assess their happiness in several ways on a 10-point scale with 10 being the best possible happiness. The authors put together poll results from 2005 to 2011.

Costa Rica has received high rankings on a number of happiness reports, but some of the studies were highly ideological, such as the 2009 Happy Planet Index.

The Laura Chinchilla administration also promotes sustainability at the expense of economic growth. The central government has outlawed all but small-scale gold mining and is trying to keep a company that has a concession from drilling test wells for petroleum in the northern zone.

Ms. Chinchilla participated in the session in New York Monday.

According to the summary of the Gallup World Polls, Costa Rica ranks 12th in happiness just after the United States. The country was not included in some of the other polling data that the authors used.

The top 10 countries, led by Denmark, are all First World nations. Canada ranked fifth. Curiously, Venezuela came in 19th.

Costa Rica ranked first on a summary of Gallup Polls from 2007 to 2011 on life satisfaction followed by Denmark, Ireland, Norway, Finland, Canada, Switzerland, Sweden, Australia and the United States.

But the authors are not happy with the domination of First World countries on both lists. They said:

“. . . the lifestyles of the rich imperil the survival of the poor. Human-induced climate change is already hitting the poorest regions and claiming lives and livelihoods. It is telling that in much of the rich world, affluent populations are so separated from those they are imperiling that there is little recognition, practical or moral, of the adverse spillovers (or “externalities”) from their own behavior.”

The report suggests that happiness measurements can be used by governments as an aid to setting policies instead of devotion to gross national product, the sum of goods and services, expressed as GNP.

But the authors promote their own opinion: “Should the world pursue GNP to the point of environmental ruin, even when incremental gains in GNP are not increasing much (or at all) the happiness of affluent societies? Should we crave higher personal incomes at the cost of community and social trust? Should our governments spend even a tiny fraction of the $500 billion or so spent on advertising each year to help individuals and families to understand better their own motivations, wants, and needs as consumers?”

In summary, the report suggests that the way to increase happiness is for people to work for a common cause:

“The assumption that individuals are only interested in their own material standards of life has made the possibilities for preserving the environment seem unrealistic to many observers. But such pessimism is misplaced. On the contrary people gain in happiness by working together for a higher purpose. There can be no higher purpose than promoting the Earth’s environmental balance, the well-being of future generations, and the survival and thriving of other species as well.”

The report will get more consideration at the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development that will be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 20 to 22. The meeting is called  Rio+20.
The report is available HERE!

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