The Beatles told us that money can't buy love but it takes an economist to tell us it can't buy happiness. A new index of well-being shows that the world's wealthiest countries do very badly when it comes to true contentment.
The index attempts to measure how well countries use their resources to deliver longer lives, greater physical well-being and satisfaction. It finds that true happiness can be had on the Pacific island of Vanuatu which comes out as No 1.
By contrast the Group of Eight (G8) rich nations, whose leaders gather for their annual summit in St Petersburg this weekend, languish near the bottom of the list. The host, Russia, comes in at No 172 out of 178, followed by the United States at 150 and France and 128. The UK comes in at 108 - just above Laos, but below Libya.
The list appears in a "happy planet index", published by the UK-based New Economics Foundation (NEF), that attempts to log the progress of nations based on the amount of resources they use compared to the length and happiness of people's lives. The NEF has taken official figures on life expectancy and multiplied it by an index based on surveys of people's happiness in various countries.
The combined figure for life length and satisfaction is then divided by the country's "ecological footprint" - a measure of the amount of land required to sustain the population and absorb its energy consumption.
As a result, countries that have historically been beset with poverty and disease languish at the bottom. Zimbabwe, where the population is currently coping with inflation above 1,200 per cent, has a life expectancy of 37 years and one of the lowest readings for satisfaction, is the unhappiest country. Its near neighbours Swaziland, Burundi and Congo are not far ahead.
But for the rich countries, it is the ecological harm they inflict that offsets any material happiness. The oil-rich United Arab Emirates (154) has the heaviest ecological footprint, followed by the US.
At the other extreme, Vanuatu, an archipelago of 80 islands in the western Pacific inhabited by fewer than 250,000 people, has a tiny ecological footprint, reasonable longevity and high life satisfaction - perhaps linked to its unspoilt coastlines and unique rainforests.
The NEF finds that island nations do particularly well in the index. " They have higher life satisfaction, high life expectancy and marginally lower footprints than other states, yet incomes are roughly equal to the world average," the report says.
The UK's "footprint" is 5.4 hectares of the world's land per person needed to sustain the population, compared with a global average of 2.2 hectares. Britons have a shorter life expectancy than the Italians and the Scandinavians and less happy lives than the Dutch and the Austrians.
More surprising are the high ratings for Latin and central American countries, particularly Colombia, which comes second.
Andrew Simms, the NEF's policy director, acknowledges the findings on Colombia will run counter to Western perceptions. "We are trapped in a cliché about Colombia," he said. "It does have drugs and conflict but the vast majority of people won't come into contact with either. Urban life is complex and rich in the way that it is in cities anywhere in the world."
However the report is unlikely to be discussed at the G8 summit where the eight countries with an average position of 114th will discuss how to improve access to the world's energy supplies and stimulate greater access to trade in global resources.
Contentment around the globe
Costa Rica: 66.0
El Salvador: 61.7
St Lucia: 61.3
Western Samoa: 61.0
Sri Lanka: 60.3
Antigua & Barbuda: 59.2
Solomon Islands: 58.9
Dominican Republic: 57.1
Trinidad & Tobago: 51.9
Papua New Guinea: 44.8
Hong Kong: 42.9
Saudi Arabia: 42.7
New Zealand: 41.9
Brunei Darussalam: 41.2
United Kingdom: 40.3
Dem. Rep. Congo: 20.7
Zimbabwe: 16.6Reuse content