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Student investigating national happiness selected for Dallas forum

Lisa Henley’s PHD gauges where New Zealand sits in relation to the rest of the world in terms of human flourishing. So where does NZ sit exactly?


A University of Canterbury statistics student, Lisa Henley, has won selection to a prestigious international forum run by SAS, which is the biggest statistical software company in the world based at North Carolina in the United States.

The SAS global forum conference will be held in Dallas Texas from April 26 to 29. The event is designed to recognise and support students who are using SAS technologies in innovative ways that benefit their respective fields of study. Most government departments and businesses use SAS within their organisations for their businesses.

Henley submitted a paper for the conference as part of her application for the SAS ambassador programme. Her paper was based on some work from her PhD in which she used SAS as the analysis software.

Her PhD is about measuring and visualising human flourishing. The paper discusses the use of a genetic algorithm which she wrote to reduce data prior to analysis. As a statistics researcher she has been taking a statistical approach to gauge where New Zealand sits in relation to the rest of the world in terms of human flourishing.

Happy man

She hopes to quantify the nation’s contentedness in her thesis study supervised by the Head of Mathematics and Statistics, Professor Jennifer Brown, Associate Professor Marco Reale and human geography senior lecturer Associate Professor David Conradson.

“I’m trying to build a statistically guided, more rounded approach to measuring human-flourishing. An idea of human flourishing that is based on improving society by not relying on perpetual growth, and that we can be happy without consuming so much,” Henley says.

“Many people may not be happy with having or consuming less, so this is about a cultural shift in the way we measure progress and wellbeing in the long term. Some countries are already starting to think about how happy their people are. The kingdom of Bhutan already has a gross national happiness measure.

“One of the developers of gross domestic product (GDP), Simon Kuznets, didn’t agree with using GDP as a measure of a nation’s welfare. He said the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income. Gross domestic product misses crucial components of a nation’s welfare including those parts that exist outside of the monetary exchange.

“Materialistic values which encourage continual consumption are in direct opposition to a sustainable future on a planet with finite resources. Policy makers have the potential to influence personal and cultural values. If we are interested in creating a sustainable future, it may be time to review the values being promoted at a national level.

“There are many well-being measures already available at a national and global level, including measures such as life satisfaction ratings and measures which include a sustainability component such as the Happy Planet Index. Other indicators include general and mental health statistics.

“My research has used current measures of factors which contribute to human flourishing, and statistical analyses, to create clusters of countries sharing common profiles. I produced a visualisation which tracked these clusters (and the countries within them) over time, across common, interpretable dimensions,’’ says Henley, a former Logan Park High student from Dunedin but came to Canterbury for her degree.

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Source: University of Canterbury