The curse of the numbers

As a generation, we are obsessed with numbers now. From size zero, to our bank balance, to country’s GDP and to net run rates, everything is ruled by the numbers.

Is there something wrong with it? Nothing at the first glance. But obsessing over it like a 6 year old would over a pizza is not normal either. Today we are overworked, unhappy, stressed out and depressed – by own device.

Happiness is a quality and goes beyond the measure of wealth. Happy Planet Index tries to measure that. In their report in 2009, there are some interesting points on globe’s happiness. Its a measure based on a mix of good lives with ecological efficiency.
Consider this state of affairs

  • Today we continue to plunder the earth (because we can, we have the means to do it and nobody is stopping us)
  • Despite all the globalization, we have severe inequality. More than half the world’s population lives on $2.50 a day.
  • Even among the richest nations, people are living a stressful and unhappy lives.

And we still continue to chase the GDP number

Happy Planet Index,  an initiative by new economic foundation is trying to change that. The index has 3 components – high life expectancy, high life satisfaction and low ecological footprint.

What comes out of the report is interesting. Most latin american and caribbean countries come out on the top followed by rich developed nations in the middle and sub-saharan countries in the bottom.

Obviously, the red areas are where the happiness index is low and green is very high and yellow and brown are in the middle. 

Calling out on the ecological footprint, the top 3 heaviest footprint is Luxembourg, UAE and USA.

Luxembourg’s per capita footprint is equivalent to consuming natural resources as if we had almost five planets to rely on.

While luxembourg’s per capita income which is the highest in the world could be a reason for such ostentatious ecological cost, it is also possible to live long, happy lives with a smaller ecological footprint than found in the highest-consuming nations.

.. people in the Netherlands live on average over a year longer than people in the USA,
and have similar levels of life satisfaction – and yet their per capita ecological
footprint is less than half the size

Costa Ricans also live slightly longer than Americans, and report much higher levels of
life satisfaction, and yet have a footprint which is less than a quarter the size.

The size of ecological footprint predictably is proportional to the per capita income. The higher the per capita income, the higher the ecological impact. But, the interesting thing is that there is a point of happy medium after which the law of diminishing returns come into play.

As you can see from the graph above, the happiness factor rises sharply as GDP increases up until a point near $10,000. Beyond this point, any higher GDP doesn’t result in proportional happiness factor.
It is not a coincidence then that the countries with high happiness index fall in this bracket.

So, the question is – is $10,000 a year enough? I don’t know the answer but it is intuitive that after some time, money loses its value – rather our consumption level goes much higher than the satisfaction level.

As though this is not enough, this recent Salon post on an interview with Thomas Geoghogen illustrates the difference between two developed nations – Germany and the US. The quality of life is better in Germany than in the US. US workers work more (9 extra 40 hr work week a year than German counterpart) and take fewer vacations. Geoghogen feels that its got more to do with Government checks. We tend to work ourselves more if we fear loss of job or advancement. We also appear to work more as well. (Ironically, according to him, Germany’s slackened work culture came from America. After WWII, the charter of human rights created by Roosevelt got worked into the constitution that resulted in social democracies).

To end, the famous joke about the investment banker and the fisherman comes to mind when thinking about material wealth and happiness. A version of it is below..

An American investment banker was taking a much-needed vacation in a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. The boat had several large, fresh fish in it.

The investment banker was impressed by the quality of the fish and asked the Mexican how long it took to catch them. The Mexican replied, “Only a little while.”

The banker then asked why he didn’t stay out longer and catch more fish?

The Mexican fisherman replied he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.

The American then asked “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman replied, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos: I have a full and busy life, senor.”

The investment banker scoffed, “I am an Ivy League MBA, and I could help you. You could spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat, and with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats until eventually you would have a whole fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to the middleman you could sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You could control the product, processing and distribution.”

Then he added, “Of course, you would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City where you would run your growing enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But senor, how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “15-20 years.”

“But what then?” asked the Mexican.

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You could make millions.”

“Millions, senor? Then what?”

To which the investment banker replied, “Then you would retire. You could move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”



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  1. Mreenal says:

    is there any way that we can measure Happiness Index at an individual level….and it was really ironical joke…



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