The Happy Planet Index (HPI) Makes Me Unhappy

By Lloyd C | Updated September 24th, 2011

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The Happy Planet Index (HPI) is an attempt to change how we measure the well-being of different countries. It challenges our current use of income-based measures such as GDP per capita.

The idea of the Happy Planet Index makes me pretty happy. Even the UK Conservative Party applauded it in parliament, so it’s certainly gaining traction, which is great. But upon closer examination, the outcomes of the Happy Planet Index actually make me a little unhappy.

Here’s why…

What is the Happy Planet Index?

From the HPI website:

The Happy Planet Index reveals the ecological efficiency with which human well-being is delivered.

There are three primary drivers of the HPI:

  1. Life Satisfaction
  2. Life Expectancy
  3. Ecological Footprint

Roughly, the HPI equates to the following:

(Life Satisfaction x Life Expectancy) ÷ Ecological Footprint

The actual HPI calculation is a little more complicated, but you get the idea; it essentially measures the cost of happiness in units of ecological impact.

The Purpose of the Happy Planet Index

If you read the HPI literature (specifically the Happy Planet Index 2.0 Report), you’ll clearly see it’s intended to replace current measures of well-being and progress, such as GDP per capita.

That begs the question,

Is the purpose of the Happy Planet Index to,

  1. measure ecological efficiency, or
  2. measure well-being and progress

This is an important distinction because the HPI suggests these purposes are synonymous.

Working Backwards From Colombia

I was first introduced to the Happy Planet Index by a Colombian who wanted to share the virtues of his homeland. At the time (2008), Colombia was ranked #1 on the HPI. “That’s nice”, I thought, but then something dawned on me:

Why is a country that possibly instills the most unhappiness on other countries (through its drug exports) considered a beacon of global well-being and progress?

Don’t get me wrong, all reports are that Colombians are super friendly and the country is beautiful. But I just can’t stomach that Colombia is a poster-child for well-being. Sure it’s progressing nicely, but it’s still one of the world’s largest drug exporters and it’s not the safest place to visit either.

Not only was Colombia #1 (it’s now #6), but the US, Canada, and Australia were (and still are) near the bottom alongside many Sub-Saharan countries. Is Canada really as broken (on whatever terms you equate with well-being) as countries plagued by famine and run by dictators who murder their own citizens? The highest ranking Western country in the latest HPI is the Netherlands at #43.

This presents an issue for the HPI because developed countries can’t take it seriously in this context.

Definition vs. Intent

Of course, the HPI folk didn’t select Colombia for the #1 position. Nor did they relegate the US to the bottom ranks just for kicks. Instead, they constructed an environmentally-aware index with the best intentions and the results were just the results.

Here’s the problem: the higher purpose of the HPI is to reframe the concept of well-being, but the more specific purpose is to measure ecological efficiency. Unfortunately, the two don’t necessarily equate.

I’m not suggesting ecological impact doesn’t matter, but giving it such a fervent focus devalues the intent of the entire initiative, which (in my own words) is to help the world better focus on what matters.

Columbia was #1 because by the definition it produced the world’s happiest living at the lowest rate of ecological impact. But should that really be our primary focus going forward?

The Reality of the HPI

In my opinion,

The HPI is instead a twisted measure of acceptable poverty.

Huh? What does that even mean? Well, it means that the HPI is a ranking of poor countries, but adjusted so that abjectly poor countries (the most unhappy people) are sent to the bottom. Of course, this isn’t the intent, but in my opinion, it’s the outcome.

That’s because the ecological footprint is largely a function of poverty. Of course, if you’re poor, you don’t have much money to spend on anything that creates an ecological impact, including basic necessities. As soon as your country can afford to support civilization, it is penalized because supporting civilization means impacting the planet.

We’d like to think the HPI’s ecological footprint measure is all about environmental policy, but good policy is negligible compared to the effect of poverty. This doesn’t only suggest that wealthy countries can’t win, but it suggests that poor countries will lose their high ranking if they become too prosperous.

Just take a look at the list of highest ranking countries in terms of ecological footprint: Congo, DR Congo, Bangladesh, Angola, India… do you see a theme here?

Developed Countries Have No Hope

The HPI means well by focusing on ecological impact, but how can wealthy countries compete? Well, they have two options:

  • Reduce ecological footprint to compete with poor countries
  • Curb spending to simulate resource-usage of poor countries

Most wealthy countries are currently tackling environmental issues such as climate change. But none of the suggested targets, even if brought forward 50 years and multiplied by 10, would come remotely close to competing with the poorest countries. So without a second industrial revolution that would essentially defy physics, this can’t happen.

As for curbing spending to simulate poverty, we all know where that would lead… massive unemployment and the unhappiest of unhappy people. It would require a massive behavioral change that really makes no sense.

With this in mind, the HPI essentially suggests that developed countries should descend into poverty.

What to Make of This Rant?

Conceptually, I like the HPI mandate. It’s a noble pursuit and produces thoroughly interesting info. So my rant isn’t so much a case of criticism, but rather a long-winded case for suggested improvement.

More than anything, I think the HPI is a case of jumping on a misguided bandwagon. It focuses way too much on ecological impact, which wouldn’t be a problem if the HPI wasn’t being bandied about as a new-age proxy for global well-being and progress.

Suggestion #1: Reverse Testing is Much-Needed

The framework must be reverse tested to make sure it reflects reality. That doesn’t mean cooking the books; it means making sure the methodology is on the right track. The results need to be sensible.

For example, I’m a critic of the US as much as the next person, but I’m not naive enough to think its well-being is on par with a country in government-sanctioned genocide (i.e. Sudan) or with countries in the throes of seemingly insurmountable poverty.

At a minimum, the US should represent middle ground because it’s relatively free and somewhat prosperous. I don’t mind if it’s penalized for its ecological footprint, but if the focus is really human well-being, then something needs to change in the current HPI.

Suggestion #2: Life Satisfaction Should be the Focus

Ecological degradation is certainly a key global issue, but if we’re measuring well-being, then well-being (using more objective and relevant data) should be the focus.

For starters, maybe the HPI should also consider the following:

  • Human rights
  • Corruption
  • Freedom/persecution
  • Productivity
  • Employment
Sure, all of these are subjective too, and they have their own biases, but I think they do a better job than a single Gallop life satisfaction survey. They tend to get to the core of well-being, maybe even closer to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Suggestion #3: External Impact Matters

A country’s impact on the globe and other countries should matter. Ecological footprint somewhat takes this into account, but again, we should also give weight to other aspects of human well-being. As per the example of Colombia, being a major exporter of drugs is uncool and should be penalized.

On the topic of uncool, starting wars isn’t cool either, despite the platitudes of governments. We’re led to believe that superpowers must engage in war to keep the rest of us safe, but Gandhi made a good point in relation to this:

An-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye … ends in making everybody blind.

Maybe, the HPI could account for the following:

  • Export tonnes of illicit drugs
  • Number of citizens sent to war
  • Support for terrorism
  • etc.

This point clearly needs more thought, but it’s a suggestion nonetheless.


The beauty of the HPI is its simplicity, but simplicity only goes so far. If we’re truly serious about reframing the way we measure well-being and progress, we need to consider the human condition worldwide, not just #firstworldissues (yes, it’s a popular, but pejorative, Twitter hashtag). That means, giving consideration to ecological impact, but not giving it an unreasonable weight.

The ecological impact may be all the rage in the West, but let’s not forget the plight of people currently facing genocide, famine, and war. If you really think life in the US is similar to life in Sudan, I suggest it’s time you search Globetrooper, join a trip and visit a few ‘exotic’ destinations. I hear Darfur is nice this time of year.

P.S. If you got this far and you like crunching data, let me know if you’re interested in starting a new more targeted global index. 🙂