The blue marble

The pursuit of happiness: do more resources make us happier?

Last week I visited the University of Virginia, one of the oldest in the US, invited to deliver a Moore Lecture (title: “Warming, Hypoxia and Ocean Acidification: A deadly cocktail for marine biota”).

The University of Virginia was founded in 1819 by Thomas A. Jefferson, third president of the US, whom I deeply admire for many reasons. Primarily for composing the original draft of the US Declaration of Independence adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library in the University of Virginia contains a number of documents, letters and drafts corresponding to the making of the Declaration, which I was able to inspect last week, providing insight into the crafting of this document.

The US Declaration of Independence is a beautiful piece of literature, containing a potent statement on the meaning of life, particularly contained in its second sentence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

The ending statement, that we are all endowed with the right of pursuing happiness provides, in my opinion, a thought worth considering when pausing and thinking about global change.

As stated in my previous post, global change derives, ultimately, from population growth and the growth in per capita use of resources, as reflected in our global ecological foot print. But does increased use of resources make us happier?

Happiness is a subjective trait, but can be quantified, mostly through self-declared, statements on personal satisfaction. Metrics of happiness are being devised to complement or replace other metrics of human development, such as the happy planet index. The Happy Planet Index is a measure of the ecological efficiency with which human well-being is delivered around the world. It is calculated as the ratio between the product of the self-declared satisfaction, on a scale 0 to 1, and the life expectancy - yielding happy-life years, and the ecological footprint, as the resources required to support those happy-life years.

You can check world stats (see figures), but also take a survey to calculate your own happiness. I took mine, but did not fare very well, because turns out I travel too much by plane, going to conferences and workshops, and this does consume a lot of energy… must reduce my own footprint!

Most importantly, research on happiness across countries shows that there is a relationship between monetary capacity, as GDP per capita, and happiness across nations, but only at very low GDP. At very low GDP per capita, for the poorest countries (< 5,000 $ per capita per year), the degree of happiness rises quickly with even modest improvements in GDP per capita. However, at moderate levels of income, the happy planet index ceases to improve with additional wealth as this yields only marginal or no self-satisfaction, but involves an increase in the use of resources.

Essentially, happiness follows, once a moderate income is reached, a law of diminishing returns.

These empirical results are anticipated in my favourite definition of happiness, by Channing Pollock as:

“_a way station between too little and too much”

Pause for a second and ask yourself: are you happy?

Global self-satisfaction ratings (green: high; red: low). Source:
Global Ecological Footprint ratings (green: high; red: low). Source:
Global Happy Planet Ratings (green: high; red: low). Source:

Can you be just as happy or happier while imposing a smaller footprint on the planet resources? I can.