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Measuring Happiness and Its Sustainability

Measuring Happiness and Its Sustainability

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Published by: Thavam on Oct 15, 2013
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10/15/2013

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October 15, 2013
Recently, Colu
mbia University’s Earth Institute, publishedthe World Happiness Report 2013. Happiness was measured by thisAmerican University utilising indicators such as economic growth (GDP),life expectancy, level of social support, perception of corruption, and thefreedom to make choices on lifestyle, etc. The analysis was based on dataavailable between 2010 and 2012 and with the United Nations SustainableDevelopment Solutions Network. The Earth Institutes analysts concludedthat the world had become ‘a slightly happier and more generous placeover the past five years’.Denmark was adjudged to be the world’s happiest nation with a score of 7.693.Norway was second with 7.655. Switzerland was third with 7.650. The unhappiestcountry of the 156 measured was Togo, in Africa with a score of 2.963. The bottom five were all African nations: Benin, the Central African Republic, Burundi and Rwanda joining Togo.Sri LankaThe largest increases in happiness were recorded in Angola, Zimbabwe, Albania,Ecuador and Moldova. The threshold would have been fairly low in these countries. SriLanka was ranked 137 out of the 156. One editorial in a national newspapercommented that Sri Lanka was ‘in the exalted company of Sudan, Zimbabwe, Uganda,Mali and Haiti, etc.’ The Editor went on to indicate that coming close on the heels ofHuman Rights Chief Navi Pillay’s trenchant comments, after her groundbreaking visitto Sri Lanka, the UN does not seem to have much affection for Sri Lanka! But theEarth Institute’s analysis is based on hard research data, submitted to UN’sSustainable Development Solutions Network voluntarily by Nation States themselves.Sri Lanka’s Opposition Member of Parliament, Economist Harsha de Silva, has chimedin saying that the vast majority Sri Lankans are shown by the Earth Institute to beunhappy, mainly due to the heavy debts accumulated by the Government andGovernment-controlled commercial banks. These loans are taken at interest rates of9.25% and 9.5%. These have to be paid back by all Sri Lankans collectively. The smallcoterie of people benefitting from the present Government’s largesse, the immediatecircle drawing benefits of political power and influence, are happy, de Silva indicates,but the vast majority of Sri Lankans will fit into the Earth Institute’s categorisation ofbeing unhappy, seems to be the Economist’s view.Measuring happinessThe Oxford Dictionary tells us that being ‘happy’ is being cheerful with feelings ofpleasure or satisfaction. ‘Satisfaction’ is, in turn, when you are pleased because youhave achieved something or because something has happened as you wanted it to. Asynonym is being ‘content,’ being happy and satisfied with what you have.
 
Whether Columbia University’s criteria for ensuring happiness sit well with thesedefinitions is indeed a moot point. Measuring happiness as an indicator of the qualityof life of average citizen has been an ongoing exercise from time immemorial.Sustainable is defined as something which survives and can be maintained withoutchange.One measure adopted, encouraged by their economic pundits and taken into accountby Columbia University’s Earth Institute, is the Gross Domestic Product, better knownby its initials GDP, which has also been the professional economists’ chosen measureof a nation’s wellbeing for over 70 years. Economic growth is assumed to equate to wellbeing. However, it is well recognised to have serious limitations; for example ittakes no account of environmental pollution and degradation, which negatively affectssustainability, it also excludes all unpaid services which exist in the economy, such asvolunteering and domestic housework – homemaking.Robert Kennedy, Attorney General of the USA and brother of President John. F.Kennedy, put it succinctly, when he said that GDP “measures everything… except that which makes life worthwhile!”Economic performance measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a measure ofthe value of goods and services produced in a country. It has been defined as the totalof all economic activity in one country, regardless of who owns the productive assets.However it has many flaws and does not even measure the value of goods andservices precisely. Further people’s feelings of happiness or satisfaction or optimismalso depend on things GDP does not capture.Difficult and challenging timesWe live in difficult and challenging times. Global poverty and inequality stubbornlypersist and the threat of the negative consequences of global climate change loomsover all our heads.At a UN gathering in Brazil, the Rio +20 World Sustainability Conference, those that were concerned enough to attend, that is – the major players simply kept away! – the238 point final agreement entitled ‘The Future We Want’ was arrived on the dayappointed for the conference to end, a sure sign of an ineffective UN conference; there was no real controversy, where there are controversial ‘real’ issues raised, themeetings go on until the early hours of the morning, trying to hammer out acompromise. The EU’s Climate Change Commissioner commented on the finalcommuniqué: “It is telling that nobody in that room adopting the text was happy. That’show weak it is.”A growing number of ordinary people around the world are recognising the mutualinterconnectedness of these issues and the need to think of a way to evolve ameasure of development which would capture the real situation of the status ofhumanity as to their thinking of their present and future.How is ‘sustainable progress’ to be measured in the 21st century? The traditionalindicators of economic activity simply don’t tell us enough about ordinary people’shopes, goals and aspirations. It is this realisation that prompted the United Nations tohost a High Level meeting on Happiness and Wellbeing. For the same reason the few world leaders who actually attended Rio +20 were involved in negotiations ondevelopment indicators which ‘would go beyond GDP’.
 
The Happy Planet IndexLike Columbia University’s Earth Institute, the New Economics Foundation, respondingto this need has created a Happy Planet Index (HPI). The HPI is considered to be oneof the leading global measures of sustainable wellbeing. As a measure of humanprogress, it measures the extent to which countries deliver long, happy, sustainablelives for their citizens.The 2012 HPI report, published on 14 June 2012, ranks 151 countries based on theirefficiency – defined as the extent to which each nation produces long and happy livesfor their citizens, per unit of environmental input. Clearly the results show that we arenot living on a happy planet. No country has good performance on three criticalindicators – life expectancy, experiential well being and ecological footprint. Somecountries certainly do well, but maybe not the ones you expected.None of the top 10 in the HPI are the world’s rich countries. Of the top 40 in the HPI,only four have a GDP per capita of over $ 15,000. The highest ranking Western nationis Norway at 28. New Zealand is 29th. Costa Rica leads the HPI table, with its veryhigh life expectancy, high experiential wellbeing and an ecological footprint one-third ofthe USA’s. The HPI results show that progress is not just about wealth. That it ispossible to live happily in a sustainable way, without doing irretrievable damage to theenvironment and that this is measurable. There does not seem to be much diversity inthe findings of the Earth Institute and New Economics Foundation.
Better Life’ index and the HDIThe OECD also, a mainly rich country think tank, has attempted to address this issueof developing an accurate indicator for development has created the ‘Better Life’ index.The index uses 24 variable indicators across 11 sectors, to create a measure of welfare for 34 of its members, plus Brazil and Russia. If the 11 sectors are groupedinto two broader categories, America excels most in money and jobs, Switzerland inhealth and education.The index was launched in May 2011; it was the first attempt to bring togetherinternationally comparable measures of wellbeing. The 11 sectors measured includehousing, income, jobs, community life, education, environment, governance and work-life balance. Each topic was considered using three indicators; for work-life balancethree indicators were considered: the number of employees working long hours, thepercentage of working mothers, and the time people devoted to leisure and personalactivities.The HDI, Human Development Index, developed by the UNDP under the guidance ofthe late Dr. Mahbub ul Haque was an alternative measure. Dr. Haque said: “Thehuman dimension of development is not just another addition to the developmentdialogue. It is an entirely new perspective, a revolutionary way to recast ourconventional approach to development.”Gross National HappinessIn 1999 the Planning Commission of Bhutan organised a workshop in Thimpu toconsider whether or not the concept of Gross National Happiness – GNH – asarticulated by the King of Bhutan as a development target of his kingdom, could berelated to the HDI indicators of the UNDP.The workshop considered a number of issues: Could an index for GNH be constructed

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