The Happy Planet Index is economics at its most basic: Input vs Output of a system. With one small difference. It’s focus is on efficiency or true economy. The New Economics Foundation, a “think-and-do-tank” that breathes some life into the musty theories of economics, has taken on the considerable task of demonstrating and then communicating that our lives can be rich and fulfilling without destroying the planet through their Happy Planet Index. It seems like they’ve succeeded in creating something imminently understandable yet profound.

The HPI reflects the average years of happy life produced by a given society, nation or group of nations, per unit of planetary resources consumed. Put another way, it represents the efficiency with which countries convert the earth’s finite resources into well-being experienced by their citizens.

Attempting to quantify and measure the happiness level of a group of people is a daunting and controversial task whose very feasibility has been debated since the beginning of time. With a clear understanding of the complexities at play, here’s what the HPI team has to say:

In recent years, the debate has moved from philosophy to the realm of science, with a growing body of research identifying what it means to be happy, what drives it and how to measure it. For us, being ‘happy’ is more than just having a smile on your face – we use the term subjective well-being to capture its complexity. Aside from feeling ‘good’, it also incorporates a sense of individual vitality, opportunities to undertake meaningful, engaging activities which confer feelings of competence and autonomy, and the possession of a stock of inner resources that helps one cope when things go wrong. Well-being is also about feelings of relatedness to other people – both in terms of close relationships with friends and family, and belonging to a wider community.

Understanding the ecological footprint of an individual or group is relatively straightforward by comparison, but their attempt to break it down is still worth a read.

From here it’s just a matter of plugging the data into their elegant equation and making sense of the results.

The HPI shows that around the world, high levels of resource consumption do not reliably produce high levels of well-being, and that it is possible to produce high well-being without excessive consumption of the Earth’s resources. It also reveals that there are different routes to achieving comparable levels of well-being. The model followed by the West can provide widespread longevity and variable life satisfaction, but it does so only at a vast and ultimately counter-productive cost in terms of resource consumption.

The complete results for over 140 countries can be found here. You probably won’t be surprised to see that the US falls into the “blood red” footprint category and shares the crown with most of Africa, Cambodia and Iraq.

And why is this measurement not only relevant but critically important? Once again the near religious worship of Growth as the means to any end is proving to be no more than an academic concept that becomes incredibly destructive when put into practice.

Biologists talk about physical growth as a process which has an optimum level beyond which further growth is not beneficial, and can indeed turn malignant. Economic growth can be subjected to the same analysis. Aside from the obvious environmental impacts which we have already discussed, there is gathering evidence that an obsession with growth may have led us to ignore other aspects of life critical to our well-being. This is where the HPI has a crucial role: pointing us towards a new vision of progress which does not depend on ever-increasing growth.

During an economic crisis, it may seem inopportune to question the centrality of economic growth. Now more than ever, governments around the world are desperate to restart growth by any means possible. And yet we should not lose sight of the fact that economic growth is just one strategy to achieve well-being and, in terms of natural resources, a demonstrably inefficient one. Rather than pursuing growth at all costs, even if detrimental to well-being or sustainability, leaders should be striving to foster well-being and pursue sustainability, even if detrimental to growth. The horse and the cart need to be returned to their rightful places.