A counter-attack on happiness

In: Uncategorized

11 Aug 2006

Dr Sam Thompson, one of the authors of the recent New Economics Foundation (NEF) report on global happiness, has written a letter to Spiked in response to my article on happiness league tables (see August 7 dispatch). In my view his arguments are disingenuous. First, I already point out in my article that his league table in not a happiness measure. The point was that it was promoted in that way. Second, I also mention that the alternative league table is partly based on NEF data.

His letter follows below:

I am one of the authors of the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index (HPI), which Daniel Ben-Ami critiques in Who’s happiest: Denmark or Vanuatu?

I would like to clarify that our index is not a measure of happiness. Vanuatu is not the happiest, or the ‘best’, place in the world to live, and no one with any sensible understanding of the issues would try and claim that it is.

Rather, our index is an efficiency measure. To put it crudely, it measures how much wellbeing is achieved per unit of resource consumption. A country that scores well is not necessarily happy, but it is relatively ‘wellbeing efficient’ in the sense that it produces its wellbeing cheaply. Obviously, this does not imply that its absolute level of wellbeing is high per se. If you like, this can be read as an ‘environmentalist’ reformulation of the diminishing returns of wealth argument – wellbeing returns diminish significantly after a ‘footprint’ of about two global average hectares per person of resource consumption, not $10,000-$15,000 (as commonly claimed).

We did our best throughout the report to emphasise that the HPI should not be interpreted as a happiness index – we even wrote ‘It is important to recognise from the outset that the HPI is not an indicator of the happiest country on the planet’, on the first page of the report proper, and continued to emphasise this throughout. We repeatedly made the point that no country performed as well as could be expected and all could and should do better.

It’s true that some of the press coverage grabbed the wrong end of the stick. This may be partially our fault for giving the report its catchy name, and there may be a lesson there for us to learn in future. However, the majority of correspondents seem to have got the gist accurately enough.

For your information, I would also point out that the Leicester study is based on the set of life satisfaction data that we produced for our report. So we agree with them absolutely about which country is ‘happiest’ – it’s Denmark. We just disagree about how important that is, relative to other things.