Happy Logic

Have you ever heard of the Happy Planet Index? As a Costa Rican, I hear about it quite a lot. Both the HPI, a project of the New Economics Foundation, and the lesser-known World Database of Happiness, assembled by a Dutch sociologist, put Costa Rica at the top of the rankings. This officially makes Costa Rica the most content country on the planet. (For once, we’re first in the world at something other than potholes per capita.)

The HPI is calculated from a combination of three factors: life expectancy, self-reported well-being, and ecological footprint. Thus, according to its own website, the HPI measures “how many long and happy lives [countries] produce per unit of environmental input.” That sounds like a mouthful at first, but once you think it through for a bit the concept seems to make sense. Traditional measures of wellbeing, such as GDP per capita, simply measure output. They don’t take into account environmental devastation brought about by industrialization or unhappiness stemming from social or economic inequality. The HPI, on the other hand, rewards countries with healthy, satisfied citizens for living within their ecological means. Thus, the HPI tells developing countries they shouldn’t aspire to the living standards of the United States or France, but rather to the smile production of Costa Rica.

So, Costa Rica ranks first in the HPI. Here are some other facts about my country: Recently, a massive sinkhole, caused by faulty construction, opened up under the only highway worthy of that title in the country. Another, brand-new highway (with one lane in either direction), took us 35 years to build and is already falling apart. In some villages, drug traffickers are forcing children to drop out of school and cultivate marijuana. Three recent ex-presidents are accused of serious corruption charges; two were convicted, and one fled to Spain. The current president has a 26 percent approval rating, the lowest of the continent. Our public healthcare system is falling apart. By the way, this isn’t a recent state of affairs. Costa Rica is a country that lives in constant crisis.

Why, you may ask, do we remain the happiest country on Earth? For me, the simple answer is our “pura vida” lifestyle. Costa Ricans are easygoing, friendly, and hospitable people. Most of us live less than a two-hour drive from a beautiful beach. The HPI awards us for being “green,” and while we take good care of our environment, that’s not such a hard thing in the first place: the biodiversity here is simply stunning, and people appreciate that. Put simply, Costa Ricans feel fortunate, despite their myriad misfortunes. Thus, when the latest political crisis or infrastructure collapse rolls around, we take the situation with humor more than anything else. We roll our eyes at it—that’s life as we know it. Can you imagine jokes, rather than outrage, if a sinkhole opened up under the Mass Turnpike?

My point here is that, in Costa Rica at least, happiness seems to stem partly from culture. It’s not at all controversial from an economic viewpoint to suggest a link between happiness and culture, and this is somewhat validated by the fact that five of the top ten countries in the latest HPI ranking are located in Central America, a relatively small and homogeneous region. One of those, El Salvador, has the highest murder rate in the world, and another, Nicaragua, displays levels of poverty one would expect from a war-ravaged Sub-Saharan nation. Living in either one of those (and I have for a time, in both) actually sounds like a pretty grim prospect to me, yet the HPI would have us believe that these countries are worth emulating.

Thus, we approach the core problem with the Happy Planet Index: Happiness and wellbeing are inextricably linked, but they cannot be reduced to the same thing. If Costa Rica got its act together and built better infrastructure (even at the expense of causing a little bit of damage to the environment) our wellbeing would be much higher—we would no longer have to endure endless traffic jams brought about by rock slides or sinkholes, for instance. Yet—here’s the key—our happiness wouldn’t change that much, because it’s largely a consequence of who we are as a people. Improved infrastructure is precisely the sort of advancement that shows up in measures like GDP per capita, and which the HPI ignores completely—forms of progress that undoubtedly change us for the better, though we remain as content as ever.

The HPI is valuable in its own way, but it should be viewed more as an interesting thought experiment than as a guide to development. Yes, traditional economic indicators are flawed, and the environment should not be sacrificed at the altar of development, but for countries to truly advance they must do more than maximize happiness. Don’t get me wrong, I love my country to death. But if Costa Rica is truly our best model of development for the 21st century, then the entire planet is in some truly sinkhole-deep trouble.