One of the graduates of our Happiness Leadership Trainings, Michael Roberts, is working with communities in Jamaica to explore use of the Gross National Happiness Index in an area there. Some recent press about Jamaica:
Not everyone greeted the news with snickers. Some guffawed. the third happiest country in the world? As much as we'd like to take pride in that, it's a bit hard to believe that happy, smiling folk would also top the league tables for killing each other.
The thing is, it is not a happiness index; it is the happy planet index. Put out by New Economics Foundation - a quirky think tank which, nonetheless, has its in the right place - the index is principally concerned with sustainability. The logic is that which are developing, without leaving too large an ecological footprint, create a happier planet.
Therefore, because it's a truism that the higher a country's per capita income, the greater its per capita resource consumption and carbon footprint will tend to be, Jamaica's low rate of growth over the last generation means we will show up as producing a more sustainable model. We may not be the world's third happiest people; but we're third kindest to the planet.
The report measures development as a combination of life expectancy and satisfaction: the more years a country's citizens live (on average), and the happier each of those years, the more developed a country. As for sustainability, the foundation estimates ecological footprint as a combination of resource consumption and pollution output.
Jamaica's performance is skewed by the fact that we outperform when it comes to life expectancy. The fact that, on that score, we are a Third-World country performing at a First-World standard is alone something to boast about. It reflects the legacies of decisions taken by previous generations of leaders, from creating a fine medical school to prioritising public health - something which was given especial importance in the 1970s.
However, when it comes to life satisfaction, Jamaica doesn't show up as well. We top the happy planet index because of our long life expectancy, but low resource consumption skews the result. And here, the authors of the report acknowledge one of development's dilemmas. Although diminishing returns begin to set in as a country rises from being a middle-income to a high-income one, the fact remains that the correlation between per capita income and life satisfaction remains high.
On average, rising incomes mean happier people, at least to a point. Therefore, happier people mean a less happy planet. Sustainable development is about trying to strike a balance. But the notion that is propounded in some circles, that we can both grow and reduce our demands on the planet's scarce resources, has yet to be borne out by the evidence. Future technological breakthroughs may make that possible. But it hasn't happened yet.
At the end of the day, if poor countries like Jamaica are going to raise the aggregate happiness of their citizens, they will have to raise their incomes. And if we are going to do that without putting an undue burden on the planet, other countries with higher per capita incomes will probably have to reduce their consumption.
Equal income levels
In the long run, it may well be that the model of endlessly rising incomes has to be terminated; that the only way to ensure sustainable development will be for all of us to live on relatively moderate, equal income levels. As the world's leaders prepare for the climate summit later this year in Copenhagen, that is something to reflect upon.
For we are still trying to eat our cake and have it. Sustainable development, like the growth which underpins it, is all about trade-offs. Jamaicans understand the difficulty of a trade-off between happy people and a happy planet better than anyone.
John Rapley is president of the Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CaPRI), an independent research think tank affiliated with the University of the West Indies, Mona. Feedback may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.