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Indicators in Practice

Feb 22, 2015

Happy Planet Index

Scope: 151 countries 

First Released: July 2006; the 2012 version is the third release

Intended Audience: the public and policymakers 

Potential Application: Provide an alternative measure of well-being and progress 

Developer: New Economics Foundation 



With a stated goal of "measuring what matters," the Happy Planet Index (HPI) strives to provide an alternative measure of well-being. In its third release in 2012 by the New Economics Foundation, the HPI ranked 151 countries in terms of governments' ability to provide "long, happy, and sustainable lives" for their people. From a big-picture point of view, the authors of the HPI conclude that the earth as a whole is still "largely an unhappy planet." By their assessment, most countries are not achieving high and sustainable well-being, with only nine countries coming close.

Eight of the nine countries the HPI says are close to achieving high results are found in Latin America and the Caribbean. Costa Rica tops the HPI for the second time, with the second highest life expectancy in the Americas (even higher than the United States), sustainable environmental policies, and a per capita Ecological Footprint one-third the size of the United States'. The HPI cautions that Costa Rica's leadership in the HPI could change, given growing consumption patterns (see the EPI's own case study of Costa Rica's latest 2014 ranking). Vietnam comes in second and is the only other country in the top-nine that is not found in Latin America and the Caribbean. 

How is the HPI determined?

As an efficiency measure, the HPI uses data on life expectancy, experienced well-being and the Ecological Footprint. Life expectancy is the number of years an infant born in a country could expect to live, given prevailing age-specific mortality rates at the time of birth stay constant throughout an infant's life. Data are drawn from the UNDP's Human Development Report and largely reflect maternal health, pre-natal care, nutrition, and health infrastructure in a country. For the experienced well-being measure, HPI draws data from the Gallup World Poll, which asks samples of 1,000 people over the age of 15 in more than 150 countries to gauge where on a ladder from 0 to 10 they would gauge their "best possible life." Finally, the Ecological Footprint is used to understand the sustainability of resource consumption within countries.

Figure 1. The Happy Planet Index's framework incorporates measures of resources, human systems, and well-being.

Experienced well-being is multiplied with life expectancy and then divided by by Ecological Footprint to achieve a ranking of how many long and happy lives countries produce per unit of environmental output. As illustrated in Figure 1, the HPI couples resources with human systems (economic and other systemic performance) to achieve a measure of well-being. 


In taking a look at the rankings, it becomes clear that results are bifurcated globally. For those with industrialized economies and relatively high levels of GDP (e.g., Europe and the North America), high consumption and larger Ecological Footprints yield low HPI scores. For countries that are underdeveloped, including many in sub-Saharan African, low life expectancy and economic performance result in poor HPI scores. 

Some critiques take issue with the underlying data used to construct the HPI. The reliance on survey data from the Gallup World Poll, which is only conducted every five years, could yield out-of-date results. There's always questions with survey or perception-based data that is not unique to a poll like Gallup's. Others take issue with consumption-based calculations like the Ecological Footprint, which tend to oversimplify, are sensitive to population, and can overlook where impacts actually occur. Moreover, as with any quantitative approach, criticisms are lodged at the difficulty of defining subjective terms like "well-being," "happy," and sustainable. 

In spite of these criticisms, the HPI and its attempt to drive decision-makers to think differently about societal progress has spurred some countries to adopt alternative measures to GDP. Bhutan, for example, has adopted as a leading indicator Gross National Happiness consisting of four pillars: fair socio-economic development (better education and health), conservation and promotion of a vibrant culture, environmental protection, and good governance. The adoption of more 'beyond GDP' measures was also a major call at the Rio+20 Earth Summit in June 2012. 

Figure 2. The top-ten countries on the 2012 Happy Planet Index. Explore the full rankings here.