The World’s Healthiest Nation

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Mark LundegrenIn an earlier post, I posed the question, which is the world’s most advanced nation?

For that discussion, I considered several ways we might measure national advancement, and how each measure – or each alternative framing of the question – produced very different national rankings.

At the end of the discussion, and as I did in my first book The Seven Keys of Natural Life, I encouraged readers to consider a relatively new measure called the HPI, produced by the New Economics Foundation. In my reading, the HPI can serve as a rough or preliminary measure of national adaptivity, or adaptive health. HPI stands for Happy Planet Index, though for me it would be better named, and in any case thought of, as a Healthy People Index.

Importantly, however adaptive health is best measured, and thus predicted, for me adaptive health is the ultimate performance metric, whether for individuals, groups, species, or whole ecosystems. In nature, health – here defined as the ability to steadily survive over time and amid progressive challenges or uncertainty – is the final test of life, and therefore the ultimate measure of all measures.

Some Nations Are Wealthier or Happier, But Which Ones Are Healthier?

Since my earlier advocacy of the HPI, the metric has undergone an important and I believe positive change, increasing from three to four internal variables. In this post, I’d like to review the change, highlight why I believe the HPI is improved via the added variable, and explain reasons why the HPI remains an important preliminary or suggestive measure of what matters most at a national level today – adaptivity or each nation’s likely potential to survive, and therefore thrive, in time.

With these goals in mind, below is an overview of the new HPI metric, including the rationale or working hypothesis for including its now four variables in a measure seeking to gauge and predict adaptive health at a national level:

> Happiness – the original and revised HPI metric begins with a measure of reported national happiness, which is taken from the Gallup World Poll. While happiness may be an important end in itself, and perhaps needs no additional justification in some regards, we have good reason to believe that happier people also will be healthier or more adaptive people too in several important domains of natural life (if with some upward natural limits). People who are happy or experience well-being have been shown in correlational research to: 1) be more physically healthy and fit, 2) have more varied and innovative behaviors, 3) be more moral or principled and less apt to engage in criminality or possess dark triad attributes, 4) be flourishing or growing by various measures, 5) have superior mental or cognitive functioning, 6) be more optimistic, which often brings important adaptive benefits, 7) have superior adaptive profiles within the Big Five personality model, 8) be more purposeful and industrious, 9) have greater self-efficacy, 10) have stronger and more beneficial social relationships or greater social capital, and 11) better cope with pain, hardship, and adversity. On a more cautionary note, slightly curtailed happiness, or controlled hedonistic behaviors, have been found in other research to be associated with reduced addictive tendencies, greater future orientation and goal achievement, and more meaningful or fulfilling experiences of life.

> Life Expectancy – average national life expectancy or longevity is also carried through in the revised HPI metric, and is calculated from World Health Organization Survey Data. As with a happy life, a long life may be desirable in itself, but we again have good reason to believe that longer-lived nations will be healthier or more adaptive ones on average too. There are a number of reasons for this, some more intuitive or uncontroversial than others. First, increasing lifespans generally signal greater social security, improved ability to assure essential human needs, greater intelligence or wisdom in public and private life, and likely reduced aggression and violence – all fairly intuitive goods and understandable signals of adaptive social advancement and maturity . Somewhat more subtly, increased life expectancy is also associated with added future certainty, and thus can lead to delayed personal gratification and greater focus on future outcomes and goal achievement, by individuals and groups overall. Greater life expectancy therefore can naturally foster heightened self and social investment over time, which can be understood as highly adaptive overall compared with more presentistic or present-oriented functioning (though notably, while often engendering somewhat less happy life overall). Lastly, and more technically, nations able to achieve and sustain long lifespans are likely to have more fully made the transition to low-birth rate/low-death rate societal functioning, which is thought to be an essential aspect or even the basis of the modern transformation – and modernity’s increasing education levels, greater natural and scientific awareness, reduced fatalism and parochialism, and resulting potential for enduring human freedom from natural poverty or material entrapment. Overall, these and other modern changes suggest, though do not guarantee, the potential for fundamentally new human sentience, adaptation, and natural progress or evolutionary ascent.

> Equality – as indicated before, measurement of the equality, inequality, or distribution of the above happiness and life expectancy measures within each nation is a new addition to the HPI, via a procedure that can be understood as calculating and averaging the GINI Coefficient of each national data set. In practice, the case for, or against, promoting social or economic equality is often made on moral or political grounds. But here I want to highlight the potential adaptive health benefits of relatively high equality in social outcomes, within and between nations. At the same time, I also want to underscore that the optimal amount and forms of social equality within and across modern societies, and notably from an adaptive health standpoint, is an empirical and open question. That said, we have good reason to believe that, all other things being similar, fairly equal social conditions are likely to be more adaptive relative to highly unequal ones. We can understand this natural relationship via the various health benefits of: 1) greater social cohesion and inclusiveness or democracy, which generally include positive happiness effects, 2) reduced marginalization and estrangement of people and groups, increasing productivity and reducing natural costs from social divisiveness (including crime and other antisocial, needlessly competitive, and self-defeating social behaviors), 3) increasing average education levels and principled sociality, and 4) eliminating various disincentives and barriers naturally arising from social and economic inequality, barriers which often result in reduced excellence or meritocracy in social groups. Given this, relatively high social equality is likely to be a net adaptive benefit in modern nations, especially where average conditions are above poverty levels, therefore permit compounding and generally progressive personal and social self-investment, and where equalization programs do not create disincentives to ongoing natural innovation and industriousness.

> Sustainability – the last and another carryover component of the HPI is a measure of each nation’s ecological footprint, via a total and per-capita land-use estimate from the Global Footprint Network. Overall, it’s not hard to understand why sustainability, or relative freedom from the risk of resource shortfalls, is essential to societal adaptation and adaptive social health in the long-term. Similarly, it is a fairly intuitive argument why reduced consumption levels might be a good indicator of increased sustainability and therefore greater adaptive health, especially when all other things are similar. That said, it’s important to highlight that there is likely a strong lower limit to such linkages, since conditions of poverty or material entrapment may be sustainable but also not especially fertile, empowering, yielding, or progressive from an evolutionary or human development standpoint, and notably relative to more materially affluent and innovative conditions. On the other hand, it is relatively easy to imagine future technological and systems development that enable high consumption levels that are fully sustainable ecologically. But would such developments obviate the need to consider consumption levels in national, societal, or species adaptive health assessments? Perhaps not. The reason for this is that high consumption levels, consumerism, materialism, or wealth-focused life generally, even if sustainable, may be naturally confounding and significantly at odds with long-term adaptive health promotion – see materialism, hedonic treadmill, cynicism, and meaningful life. In any case, a nation’s relative ecological footprint is likely an important indicator of both absolute and relative adaptive health levels, especially for non-subsistent nations whose consumption patterns are not yet fully sustainable.

One frequent objection to the HPI as an adaptive health measure is that it fails to appreciate specific evolutionary tasks that appear to lie in our future, if we are to survive as a species and progressively evolve into more advanced species over time. In particular, while the HPI can be understood as recognizing and promoting the need for ecological sustainability on our planet, this is less clearly the case as respects extraterrestrial adaptive challenges and opportunities – including diverting threatening asteroids and the still larger task of becoming a multi-stellar species.

Such efforts of course involve advanced technology, resource use, and intensity of effort. But I would point out that they also include persistency of action as well, and thus invoke sustainability considerations too. As such, the general economic model of the world’s wealthiest and most technologically advanced nations may not be workable in time, since the model risks global ecological collapse if extended to all nations and global social collapse if it is reserved for some nations only. Given this, more modestly resourced or consumptive social models may actually prove superior in terms of acting on our extraterrestrial adaptive threats and opportunities over time – perhaps taking slightly longer to achieve needed functional outcomes, but also offering a more certain or secure path to our species achievement of these ends.

Overall, the HPI metric has many advantages or grounds for support as a preliminary measure of adaptive health at a national and international level. And for me, this is especially true in the absence of both superior measures and, more fundamentally, robust efforts to explore and develop such measures – as naturally important, thought-provoking, and transformative as this work might be in our time.

This link will take you to the current national HPI list, and I have included the current top-ten HPI nations below:

  1. Costa Rica
  2. Mexico
  3. Colombia
  4. Vanuatu
  5. Vietnam
  6. Panama
  7. Nicaragua
  8. Bangladesh
  9. Thailand
  10. Ecuador

I would encourage you to explore the HPI and broader set of ideas I have introduced, and also perhaps to think of new and improved ways we might better measure, predict, and ultimately promote and pursue adaptive health in our modern nations – and across our modern world, for species overall, and in time.

Health & best wishes,


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