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Map of the Week: Why Costa Rica is the happiest place

Mark Easton | 08:00 UK time, Saturday, 4 July 2009

"Every society clings to a myth by which it lives. Ours is the myth of economic growth."

I wonder how Gordon Brown reacted when he read these opening words in the Sustainable Development Commission's report Prosperity Without Growth
published in March this year. (The Commission is a public body set up to advise the prime minister on sustainable development.)

And I wonder how he might respond to today's news that, when one compares levels of sustainability and well-being internationally, Britain comes a miserable 74th in the world. Number one is Costa Rica.

The analysis, by the think tank nef, is bound to be controversial because it requires us to reconsider what we mean by progress. If you are reading this and believe that the success of a country is calculated by its wealth, this may prove disconcerting.

What nef, Sustainable Development Commission, UK government, European Commission and even the OECD all appear to agree on is that we need a better evaluation of progress than simple GDP.

It is argued that the measure of a successful nation needs to reflect some measure of life satisfaction and the environmental sustainability of that society. Simply being rich is not the point any more.

So nef has come up with a formula for international comparison: the Happy Planet Index (HPI). First conducted in 2006, today sees the publication of the second round of data, including a map of the world based on the HPI. And here it is.


According to nef, "the results turn our idea of progress on its head". Well, I certainly would not have predicted that the most successful countries on the planet are in Central and Latin America. Indeed, the researchers seem slightly surprised by the results:

"Let's not beat about the bush. The region has had, and continues to have, its fair share of misery: decades of civil wars and coups, the destruction of the Amazon, sharp inequality, and the favelas and slums of metropolises from Mexico City to Sao Paulo. For some, the region represents a sad tale of lost opportunity."

Hmm. Doesn't sound like paradise to me, but despite all of this, nine of the top ten countries in the HPI are in Latin America and the Caribbean.


Here's how nef works it out:

"The HPI is an efficiency measure: the degree to which long and happy lives (life satisfaction and life expectancy are multiplied together to calculate happy life years) are achieved per unit of environmental impact."

So first, one can look at life expectancy around the globe.


The highest life expectancies tend to be in rich developed countries. Western Europe, North America, Japan, Hong Kong and Australasia glow green while, at the other end of the table, Africa is largely red. The coincidence of longevity ratings and continental boundaries makes the world look, fittingly perhaps, like a Risk board.

The next component of the formula is life satisfaction. This is found by asking people what is now the standard question to assess what is called "subjective well-being": All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?


At first glance, it appears that rich Western countries dominate again, but closer inspection reveals that almost a third of the top 35 countries have a GDP per capita of less than $20,000. According to the nef analysis, "the country with the highest reported life satisfaction - and by some margin - is Costa Rica (8.5 on a scale of 0-10, compared with 8.1 for Ireland, Norway and Denmark)".

The final element of the HPI score is the size of a country's ecological footprint. The report explains the thinking like this: "To achieve one-planet living, a country must keep its ecological footprint below the level that corresponds to its fair share given the world's current biocapacity and population - 2.1 global hectares (or gha) in 2005." So a country with a score of 2.1 achieves one planet living. Over 4.2 is two planet living, and so on. Inevitably, rich, consumer societies fare badly on this measure.


The countries with the smallest per capita footprints are among the poorest: Malawi, Haiti and Bangladesh. The clod-hopping countries with the biggest ecological footprints are Luxembourg (10.2 gha), the United Arab Emirates (9.5 gha) and the United States of America (9.4 gha) - all using four times their fair share of global resources. Interestingly, the Netherlands achieve the same level of happy life years as the USA, but with a footprint less than half the size (4.4 gha).

After all the maths has been done, it is Costa Rica and its neighbours which come out top. The researchers put it this way:

"Latin Americans report being much less concerned with material issues than, for example, they are with their friends and family. Civil society is very active, from religious groups to workers' groups to environmental groups.
Some have mocked the high levels of reported life satisfaction in Latin American countries as belying a lack of knowledge of anything better (i.e. Western lifestyles). On the contrary, Latin America is perhaps more exposed to North American culture than anywhere else in the developing world. Yet somehow it has been more resistant to idolising this lifestyle, or at least more able to be happy with its own way of life despite this influence.
Pura vida is a popular expression in Costa Rica which is used somewhat like the English term 'cool'. It translates literally as 'pure life' and represents in itself an attitude to what is important."

Looking at the UK's position below Bosnia and Romania, perhaps we could do with a bit of Pura Vida ourselves?



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