world happiness report: clean, green and simple

whr2012I recently came across the World Happiness Report, based on research at Columbia University in the US.  It attempts to find a global standard of happiness and apply that to policy.  Interestingly, they focus on happiness as a result of the four pillars of sustainable development:  ending extreme poverty, environmental sustainability, social inclusion, and good governance.

A dense and hard read, I’ve distilled the basic important findings of the report here:

  • “In the Gallup World Poll respondents are asked (using fresh annual samples of 1,000 respondents aged 15 or  over in each of more than 150 countries) to evaluate the quality of their lives on an 11-point ladder scale running  from 0 to 10, with the bottom rung of the ladder (0) being the worst possible life for them and 10 being the  best possible (called the Cantril ladder).
  • “Over one-fourth of the world’s population give answers of 5, which is exactly the mid-point of  the range of possibilities. In every country there are life evaluations covering the whole range of possible  answers, from 0 to 10. The differences within each country reflect differing life circumstances and personalities,  and perhaps whatever else was in the respondents’ minds when the question was asked.
  • striking is the ability of just a few differences in average life circumstances, including per capita incomes, healthy life expectancy, having friends to count on in times of need, having a sense of freedom to make life choices, and absence of corruption to explain almost all (more than 95%) of these inter-regional differences.
  • “Does economic growth improve the human lot? In 1974 Richard Easterlin wrote a seminal article on what has become known as the Easterlin paradox. He presented evidence of two apparently contradictory phenomena.
    • “Fact 1” At a point in time within any society, richer people are on average happier than poorer people (a cross-sectional “fact”).
    • “Fact 2” Over time within many societies, the population does not on average become happier when the country’s income rises (a time-series “fact”).
  • “…a reasonable interim conclusion is as follows:
    •  1. In a typical country, economic growth improves happiness, other things equal. But other things are not necessarily equal, so economic growth does not automatically go with increased happiness. Thus policy-makers should balance the argument for more rapid growth against the arguments for supporting other sources of happiness. This applies to countries at every level of development.
    •  2. In developed countries in particular there is strong micro-level evidence of the importance of income comparisons, which has not been disproved by aggregate data. For this reason policies to raise average happiness must target much else besides economic growth
  • “The UN General Assembly has invited Member States to “pursue the elaboration of additional measures that better capture the importance of the pursuit of happiness and well-being in development with a view to guiding their public policies.”1
  • No government has ever had GDP per person as its only goal. But in the last 30 years income creation as measured by GDP has become an increasing mantra, and we are often told that we cannot afford the “luxury” of harmonious social relationships when they stand in its way.
  • ” The first lesson of happiness research is that GDP is a valuable goal but that other things also matter greatly. So GDP should not be pursued to the point where:
    • economic stability is imperiled
    • community cohesion is destroyed
    • the weak lose their dignity or place in the economy
    • ethical standards are sacrificed, or
    • the environment, including the climate, is put at risk.
  • The happiness consequences of ending poverty, building social inclusion and achieving good government have been well documented by the data and research in Chapters 2 and 3.
  • There are as yet many fewer established links between happiness and environmental sustainability. We would argue that the tools of happiness research have real potential to recast the debate between economic growth and environmental protection, and to show new ways to harness human ingenuity to improve all four pillars at the same time.
  • “The environmental debate could be importantly recast by changing the fundamental objectives from economic growth to building and sustaining the quality of lives, as assessed by those whose lives they are. This will depend crucially on the human capacity for cooperation that we have documented. 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. Sustainability is an instrumental goal, because without it, our health and prosperity are bound to collapse. But environmental sustainability is also an end goal: we care about nature, we care about other species, and we care about future generations. Building a wider sense of common identity among all peoples, with each other, with other species, and with the future of a threatened planet, will not be easy. But it is the only possible way forward for human thriving and even survival (p.96).

Read the whole report here:


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