The Geography of Happiness

by Lisa Mol

On the 25th of November, the government will ask the independent national statistician Jil Matheson to devise questions  which will help to determine the general state of ‘happiness’ in the UK. In this climate of recession and general pessimism this may seem like an odd thing to do, but on the other hand maybe we should find what makes us happy and focus on that instead.

This idea of ‘national happiness’ is by no means a new one. Bhutan is widely known for its use of happiness as a well-being factor and employs a ‘national happiness committee’ who gauge GNH (Gross National Happiness) to make sure the citizens of this Himalaya state are as happy as they can possibly be.  And it looks like they did the right thing. While household incomes in Bhutan remain among the world’s lowest, life expectancy increased by 19 years from 1984 to 1998, jumping to 66 years. While this is still lower than the life expectancy in most of the world, the fact is that the life span of an average Bhutanese citizen has increased by 30%. Quite an accomplishment.

So what sort of things should we be looking at if we want to gauge happiness? The usual topics spring to mind such as friendships, relationships, family life, financial security. John Ralston Saul, a Canadian political philosopher, defined happiness as ‘a balance of individual and community interests’.  Bereton et al (2008) conducted some really interesting research on the influence of environment on a person’s happiness. They found that a multitude of geographical factors, such as proximity to coasts (good) and landfills (bad) influence a person’s happiness. Major transport links could either be good or bad as “the impact of proximity to major transport routes has different effects depending on the type of, and distance to, the amenity in question, e.g., while reasonable proximity to international airports increases well-being, close proximity to major roads decreases it”. They concluded that geography and the environment are as important as the most critical socio-economic and socio-demographic factors, such as unemployment and marital status.

In this light, it appears that the environment is a sound investment as a pleasant and clean environment with access to greenery and fresh air contributes as much to the happiness of the population as factors previously thought more important. So to boost both happiness and the economy maybe we should get  companies to invest in the environment and ‘green our capitalism’. Sayer’s 2009 study into the economics of sustainable economies is rather pessimistic , stating that the environment simply cannot afford a growing economy and the huge carbon footprint we currently produce as we see monetary growth as a measure of our success. But what if we follow the example of Bhutan and concentrate on happiness rather than economic growth? If we see increased environmental health as an addition to our happiness then surely that can be seen as a profit too? So yes, bring on the happiness survey, and let’s reassess where investments can give us huge happiness profits.

Happiness index to gauge Britain’s national mood. The Guardian 14/11/2010

A new measure of well-being from a happy little Kingdom. The New York Times 04/10/2005

Brereton, F., Clinch, J. P., Ferreira, S. (2008) Happiness, geography and the environment. Ecological Economics 65: 386 – 396

Sayer, A. (2009) Geography and global warming: can capitalism be greened? Area 41 (3) 350 – 353

One thought on “The Geography of Happiness

  1. Pingback: News: The Geography of Happiness « Wellbeing: A Cure-All for the Social Sciences?

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