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September 5, 2011 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

The Happiest Place on Earth

Call it laziness, call it western-centric, call it what you will, but the search for internal happiness has always sounded like a tonne of deep meditation on hard wooden floors to me.

Taking heed of the World Development Report’s suggestion that a person’s geographical location is the most important determinacy of their welfare, I took up a less demanding pursuit: asking Google how and where to find the happiest places on Earth. Surprisingly, the answer wasn’t Disneyland.

TED Talk guest speaker Nic Marks might be the guy with the answers for me. Trained as a statistician, but with the unkempt brown blazer and cheery disposition of a high school geography teacher, the man just looks like he knows how to find happiness. Indeed, it was Marks’ cheerfulness that kept us watching past his formulaic ‘I Have a Dream’ introduction.

“People all around the world say that what they want is happiness,” Marks said. “This seems to be a natural human aspiration, so why are statisticians not measuring that?”
In direct reaction to the traditional measurement of progress by Gross Domestic Product, Marks and the rest of the liberally-minded think tank at the New Economics Foundation developed a mechanism to quantify and measure happiness. The resultant Happy Planet Index promises “to measure that which makes life worthwhile.” Average life expectancy in a country combines with citizens’ levels of life satisfaction, and then this is measured against the ecological footprint of the country. As Mark says, “People should be happy and the planet should be happy. A happy life doesn’t have to cost the earth.”

Costa Rica

Unexpected by many in the western world, the happiest place in the world in 2009 was Costa Rica, a country with a GDP of only $11,300 USD per capita. To endorse this, Marks references a recent Gallup social and economic analysis which shows that happiness is higher in Costa Rica than even traditional dominators such as Denmark and Switzerland. The cause of this result, Marks identifies, was the decision to abolish the country’s military in 1948. In its place, policy makers increased health and education to such an extent that they have one of the highest literacy rates in Latin America, and an average life expectancy that is longer than that of the USA. With nine of the top ten nations in the HPI in Latin America, Marks suggests, “The future might be Latin American.”


I doubt Marks was intending to be taken literally when he quipped “The environmental movement needs to go to the top of the mountain and have a vision for what we want.” But a quick glimpse over Bhutan’s recent national policies shows it fits the metaphor. Situated high in the Himalayan Mountains between India and China, Bhutan keeps it old-world, dodging the free market in favour of promoting nationwide happiness.

The story goes that when King Jigme Singye Wangchuck was given the throne at age 16, his principal commitment was to preserve Bhutan’s unique culture and religious heritage, ahead of modernising its economy; thus, the Gross National Happiness manifesto was born. The GNH index monitors levels of economic self-reliance, environmental health, the preservation and promotion of culture, and good governance—together, making up the four pillars of human happiness, as inspired by Buddhist thought.

Bhutanese policies have not been without controversy, but what the Bhutanese lack in freedom—traditional dress codes and architecture are enforced by law, and smoking was banned outright in 2004—they make up in wellbeing. Literacy has increased from 10 per cent in 1986 to a present-day rate of 66 per cent; and as a last adherence to the four pillars, King Wangchuck voluntarily abdicated from the throne in 2006 in favour of democracy. “They resonate well, democracy and GNH. Both place responsibility on the individual. Happiness is an individual pursuit and democracy is the empowerment of the individual.”

New Zealand

Despite best intentions to keep Bhutan distinct from the rest of the world, it appears that the philosophy of placing happiness at the centre of policy decision has caught on in the western world. Commissioner on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress Joseph Stiglitz advised that economies shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s wellbeing, noting that an increase in economic transactions does not give rise to increased happiness.

In New Zealand, the current Treasury has observed that GDP does not account for factors such as the gap between rich and poor, the amount of leisure time people have, or their quality of life. Treasury has suggested it will therefore shift the way it formulates its advice, signalling changes in the way we look at progress.

One thing which geographers in New Zealand are currently looking at is subjective measures of happiness, finding that people’s trust in others, their feelings of safety in their neighbourhoods, and the extent to which people are heard by government bodies can combine to increase wellbeing.

Further, recent research has shown that access to urban green spaces such as parks and town belts can add to quality of life. This is an important argument against the idea that economic productivity increases wellbeing: agglomeration may raise labour productivity, but as labour productivity increases, subjective wellbeing appears to decrease. New Zealand cities, with their relatively high amounts of green space per capita, appear well-equipped to promote happiness.

Call it simplistic, or far-fetched or idealistic, but it seems that we can indeed blame the government for our resultant happiness. The countries examined above are united in both their resolve to increase wellbeing, and in their actions to increase literacy levels and environmental awareness. Of course, the difference between ‘wellbeing’ and ‘happiness’ must be noted; indeed, Marks himself notes that quantifying true happiness is nearly impossible. To be in Costa Rica, Bhutan or New Zealand does not guarantee you happiness, yet as shown above, these places do give hope to the possibility.


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