Monday, April 9, 2012

“’Happy Planet Index’ – Are These Guys for Real?”

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“’Happy Planet Index’ – Are These Guys for Real?”
April 3, 2012

While silliness is not the exclusive purview of governments, a lot of our tax dollars go to projects that would astound the Founders and which defy common sense…and I suspect would surprise most clear-thinking individuals here in the good old U.S.A., as well as sensible people in other parts of the world.

As a manifestation that too many people have too much time on their hands, the New Economics Foundation in July 2006 introduced the Happy Planet Index (HPI) as a measurement to challenge such well-established indices of countries’ development, such as GDP.

Under that index countries are ranked according to an average of a subjective measurement of life satisfaction, life expectancy at birth and ecological footprint per capita. The absurdity of their efforts can be seen in the rankings, which had, as of 2009, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica heading the list of “happiest” countries. The people of Cuba (ranked number 7) might be surprised to learn that they are far happier than those in the country so many of their compatriots have died trying to reach, the United States (ranked number 114). Haiti (number 42) is being visited with an outbreak of Cholera; yet their people are deemed happier than those in Germany (51), Switzerland (52), Sweden (53) or the UK (74).

The hypocrisy, of course, lies in the belief that government can affect and measure happiness – a belief that belies the findings of Arthur Brooks who in 2008 published a survey and analysis of U.S. happiness: Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters – And How We Can Get More of It. His findings were (and are) controversial, but to me seem commonsensical. Religious people of all beliefs are much happier than secularists. Couples with children are happier than those without. Balancing personal freedom with societal order brings happiness. Conservatives were twice as likely to call themselves “very happy” than liberals. Mr. Brooks writes that having a “meaning” to one’s life, what Aristotle called eudaimonia, is critical to happiness.

Not wanting to be on the bottom of any list, no matter how ludicrous, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has convened a panel of experts to try to define reliable measures of “subjective well-being,” a measure of happiness, an effort welcomed by our dear leader, President Obama. The study will consume millions of our tax dollars. Meanwhile, much of the infrastructure of our highways and bridges are rusting. Veterans are returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to face indifference at home and benefit cuts from a not-very-thankful government. And unemployment remains above eight percent. But government knows what’s best for us; so the hell with the consequences, we are going to be happy no matter how much it hurts or what it costs!

The concept of quantifying happiness goes back to 1972 when King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan pledged to measure his country’s progress not in GDP, but in “gross national happiness”. The idea was to commit to a leadership that could be trusted, that would respect one’s cultural heritage, to avoid being swallowed up by the “menacing forces” of globalization and to not grow the economy at the expense of the people.

The scorecard? Forty years on the authoritarian government of Bhutan “ethnically cleansed” those of their countrymen not considered pure – mostly those of Nepalese origin. The country ranks 111th in terms of “freedom”, between Tanzania and Vanuatu, in the category “Mostly Unfree”, and number 76, between Brazil and Montenegro, in terms of GDP per capita. Nevertheless, Bhutan shows up number 17 on the HPI, ahead of 126 other countries, including every western country. Apparently a dictatorial regime and killing one’s countrymen in the name of ethnic purity enhances happiness!

Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, yesterday the Bhutanese Prime Minister H.E. Jigmi Y. Thinley convened a summit at the UN, entitled “Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm.” “In short,” as Lisa Napoli naively wrote in last weekend’s Forbes, “there’s more to life than amassing money. And the future of the planet depends on changing the way we think.” High sounding words, but one can rest assured that, while the skies of Bhutan’s mountainous skies may be blue and their rivers run cold and clear, the leaders of Bhutan have amassed riches, but the masses live in poverty.

The President of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla, will deliver the keynote address at the UN, as her country is “heralded as happy” for abolishing its military and maintaining its environment, and is ranked number one on the Happy Planet Index. However, Costa Rica, for those keeping track, is ranked at 44, in terms of freedom, between Macedonia and Colombia, and in terms of world GDP per capita, Costa Rica is number 76 between Brazil and Montenegro.

With images of smiling, healthy Bhutanese faces on the eastern slopes of the Himalayas, or laughing Costa Ricans dancing through Rain Forests, it is surprising that Americans are not clamoring to emigrate. Instead, why are Bhutanese, Costa Ricans, Cubans and Haitians trying to come here? Might it have something to do with freedom, opportunity and the prospect for happiness?

Our Declaration of Independence states that the people are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, one of which is the pursuit of happiness. According to that document, it is the “Creator”, not government that grants these rights “Unalienable” is defined as something that is incapable of being repudiated or transferred, which means they are not government’s responsibility. People have long debated the exact meaning of happiness as used in the Declaration and, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has come up with an answer that satisfies all parties. Its origins date back to Aristotle and John Locke who, in a 1690 essay entitled “Concerning Human Industry”, wrote, “The necessity of pursuing happiness is the foundation of liberty.”

The best definition I know suggests that the pursuit of happiness is the right to pursue any lawful business or vocation, in any manner, that does not violate the equal rights of others. At its essence, it describes the right of people to be free.

Despite the inability of students and philosophers to quantitatively define happiness, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius and the UN have concluded they will be able to apply analytics to measure what surely is a qualitative state of mind. They are not alone. British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who should know better, has embraced the idea of assessing happiness through surveys, with such incisive questions as, “Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?” French President Nicholas Sarkozy, in 2008, launched a commission which opined that the “time is right for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being.” Once “measured”, policies will be implemented according to government’s definition of happiness – and an element of individual freedom will be lost.

Certainly, it is true that happiness does not stem from materialism alone. The most important element is a moral component. If one adds value to one’s family, co-workers and friends – if one makes them happy – one is likely to be a happy person. In truth happiness is indefinable. It means different things to different people, but people who are happy know it, just as those who are unhappy also know it. For Mrs. Bennett, happiness was getting her five daughters married. “Happiness,” wrote Maxim Gorky, “always looks small while you hold it in your hands, but let it go, and you learn at once how big and precious it is.”

If government feels that happiness is worth quantifying and measuring, it suggests they have plans to make us all happy. But government cannot impose or mandate happiness. It can, though, provide the conditions that let happiness thrive. That means a society that recognizes that all citizens are created equal, a society that functions under the rule of law, that safeguards its people and that offers equality of opportunity and one that keeps its people free – to succeed or fail. “Men,” George Orwell wrote, “can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness.” A Happy Planet Index is a distraction, and a government that believes they can foster happiness is a dangerous one.

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