If we want a new economy what we measure matters

Is a good country a rich one, or a happy one?

As the economic crisis deepens into a global recession, all eyes are glued to GDP figures. This is understandable. GDP measures economic activity and whether the economy is growing, which crucially tells us how many jobs there are.

But there’s a lot that these numbers don’t tell us about economies: like whether they are leading to better lives for the people that live in them, and whether those lives are sustainable into the future. If the last few years of economic calamity have taught us anything, it’s that economic indicators are too important to be left just to statisticians and economists to ponder.

Today nef (the new economics foundation) publishes the Happy Planet Index. It is a measure of sustainable well-being that ranks countries based on how long people live, how happy they are and the size of their ecological footprint. The index is about efficiency – countries score well by maximising the happiness they create per unit of environmental input.

If you rank countries based on this efficiency, rather than economic output, the most successful nation in the world is Costa Rica. Costa Ricans have higher average life expectancy and reported well-being than people living in the United States, and the country’s Ecological Footprint is one third the size of the US (which ranks 105th).  The UK comes 41st, ahead of other EU countries but behind most Latin American and Caribbean nations.

The full data is available to explore at www.happyplanetindex.org. None of the top ten countries ranked by overall HPI score are among the world’s richest – in fact amongst the top 40 countries by overall HPI score, only four countries have a GDP per capita  of over $15,000. The highest ranking Western European nation is Norway in 29th place, just behind New Zealand in 28th.

The HPI results provide evidence for something we instinctively know to be true – that progress is not just about wealth, and that it is possible to live both happily and sustainably. They show that while the challenges faced by rich resource-intensive nations and those with high levels of poverty and deprivation may be very different, the end goal is the same: to produce happy, healthy lives now and in the future.

A Costa Rican frog sits on a leaf. Judging by the statistics, it is probably very happy. Photograph: Getty Images

Juliet Michaelson is a senior researcher at nef's Centre for Well-Being

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Liam Fox as International Trade Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for International Trade.

Only Nixon, it is said, could have gone to China. Only a politician with the impeccable Commie-bashing credentials of the 37th President had the political capital necessary to strike a deal with the People’s Republic of China.

Theresa May’s great hope is that only Liam Fox, the newly-installed Secretary of State for International Trade, has the Euro-bashing credentials to break the news to the Brexiteers that a deal between a post-Leave United Kingdom and China might be somewhat harder to negotiate than Vote Leave suggested.

The biggest item on the agenda: striking a deal that allows Britain to stay in the single market. Elsewhere, Fox should use his political capital with the Conservative right to wait longer to sign deals than a Remainer would have to, to avoid the United Kingdom being caught in a series of bad deals. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.