Lonely Planet Writer

Lands of happiness

happy1What's the happiest nation in the world?

Two studies have come out with conflicting results. According to CNN, a study by Britain's New Economics Foundation gives the title to Costa Rica. (Runners up: the Dominican Republic and Jamaica. Vietnam was the top non-Central America/Caribbean nation, in fifth place.)

This conflicts with another widely cited study, from last year. The BBC reports that Denmark is the world's happiest nation, according to an annual study by the US National Science Foundation. Puerto Rico and Colombia rounded out the top three, while Zimbabwe was the least happy.

The wide disparity between these results reveals a fundamental difference in methodology. The New Economics Foundation's results took three main factors into account: well-being, life expectancy and ecological footprint. The last of these sent most developed nations plummeting to the bottom of the list. Meanwhile, the National Science Foundation's study relied on survey responses to two questions on happiness and satisfaction with life.

Separating happiness from economic prosperity is not a new concept. In a 1968 speech, US politican Robert Kennedy disparaged Gross National Product as a metric, claiming, 'The Gross National Product includes air pollution...and the destruction of the redwoods.... It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages....'

In 1972, Bhutan's former king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, attempted to create a metric that would capture such intangibles. He called it Gross National Happiness, and economic growth is only one of its measures. It also considers the preservation of cultural values and the environment.

So what is a legitimate measure of happiness? What would you call 'the happiest country on earth'? Is such a statement even meaningful, or is it folly to put measures around something so ephemeral and subjective?