Happy Happy Joy Joy

What's the happiest place on earth? If you're like me, you've known for a long time that the answer is: Disneyland. However, you may have heard that recently the New Economics Foundation, based in the UK, came up with a different answer: Vanuatu! Which, I'm pretty sure, does not even have a Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Something's wrong.

The NEF's "Happy Planet Index" website is here. Their motto is "economics as if people and the planet mattered." Hmmm, Watson … might this be a small clue that their notion of happiness is skewed by ideology? And, indeed, what the NEF claims to measure is "the ecological efficiency with which human well-being is delivered around the world." They even have a formula [May 2018 update: changed at some point since I originally wrote this):

HPI = Life satisfaction x Life expectancy
Ecological Footprint

Other things being equal, the "Ecological Footprint" divisor allows NEF to automatically (and so "scientifically") deem primitive, poor, low-energy-use societies "happier" than wealthy modern ones. People living in a country don't actually have to be that happy; they simply have to live in a way that the NEF thinks they ought to be living. That will make the planet happy! Damn animists!

Will Wilkinson has a masterful takedown of the NEF ranking here; ever polite, he deems the NEF's study "egregiously dumb".

There is simply no non-crazy sense in which Vanuatu is the world's happiest country. And there is no credible empirical reason for docking countries on any kind of index of human well-being for producing a lot of wealth. The evidence says that the happiness of poor populations like Vanuatu's would skyrocket with swift economic growth. But growth is exactly what NEF is trying to limit. Their pseudo-study encourages us to be complacent about the poverty of Vanuatu, which is, after all, the "happiest" place on our "happy planet," on the basis of the fact that they use almost no energy. If you really care about the well-being and happiness of the world's poor, then agressively misleading publicity stunt studies like this one, and the people who author them, deserve nothing but our scorn.
Tim Worstall is, if anything, less polite:
I'm sure that this Index will make it across the pond at some point and be hailed as a new and excitingly meaningful way of proving that the Industrial Revolution was all a bad idea. When it does, you'll now be forewarned for the exercise was constructed to prove exactly that. Machines bad, wealth bad, progress bad. The authors are really not sure that we should ever have left the Stone Age.

And—wait, it gets even better—the NEF didn't actually find out how happy the folks in Vanuatu were. According to Carl Bialik ("The Numbers Guy") in the WSJ Online: the data used to measure happiness around the globe were "satisfaction scores" accumulated by the World Values Survey, but unfortunately, Vanuatu was left out. So …

To fill in that gap, New Economics extrapolated Vanuatu's happiness score from happiness surveys in Africa and Asia, and made some adjustments based on the unique demographics of Vanuatuans.
I. e., they just kind of made it up.

The important point is not (particularly) that this survey was tendentiously question-begging; that kind of thing happens all the time. But, since the yarn fit in well with environmentalist religion, the media picked it up and ran with it uncritically. Good to keep in mind, since it's the kind of thing that happens a lot.


Last Modified 2018-05-07 5:46 AM EST