The serious business of well-being

GDP is an insufficient guide for “safeguarding the well-being of people or our future”.

At the insistence of King Jigmi Singye Wangchuck (right), Bhutan in 2004 created gross national happiness as a counterweight to gross national product [Gelay Jamtsho/Solutions Journal]

Happiness: is it just a fad of the day or the wave of the future? On July 19, 2011, the United Nations (UN) passed a resolution urging governments across the globe to start measuring happiness and well-being “with a view to guiding public policy”. The UN recognises that gross domestic product (GDP) is an insufficient guide for safeguarding the well-being of people or our future. Instead, the UN suggests “a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and well-being of all peoples”.

In April 2012, the UN held its first High Level Meeting on Happiness and Well-Being. Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley of Bhutan set the tone:

The time has come for global action to build a new world economic system that is no longer based on the illusion that limitless growth is possible on our precious and finite planet or that endless material gain promotes well-being. Instead, it will be a system that promotes harmony and respect for nature and for each other; that respects our ancient wisdom traditions and protects our most vulnerable people as our own family, and that gives us time to live and enjoy our lives and to appreciate rather than destroy our world. It will be an economic system, in short, that is fully sustainable and that is rooted in true, abiding well-being and happiness.

We’re part of a team that is working to find concrete ways to engage individuals and communities in just the sort of reassessment the United Nations proposes. We started a project we call The Happiness Initiative in 2010. Before we explain how our model works, it’s important to understand why such a project is needed.

A broken system

It’s clear to those who’ve been paying attention that our current economic behaviours are on a collision course with the earth’s limits, an issue the founders of the Balaton Group warned about 40 years ago in their seminal book Limits to Growth. Recent reports by the Global Footprint Network and others confirm their predictions. We are now using resources and generating wastes at rates 40 percent higher each year than can be sustained. If every country on earth were to consume at US levels, we’d need five planets. 

As the UN points out, part of the problem is our current metric for societal success: GDP. While the United States has one of the world’s largest per capita GDPs, it trails most other wealthy countries and some poorer ones in many ways. A few examples:

  • Americans are more likely to report experiencing stress than are people of 144 other nations. Rich and poor Americans are more likely to be anxious or worried than people in 88 other nations. The United States ranks 11th in “life satisfaction” according to the Gallup-Healthways poll, but well below Denmark, Finland, Norway and the Netherlands.
  • Americans consume nearly two-thirds of the world’s anti-depressants.
  • More than a third of Americans over 45 report being chronically lonely, up from 20 percent in 2000.
  • US life expectancy is 50th in the world according to the CIA World Factbook, shorter than in any other rich country, despite the fact that Americans spend twice as much on health care per capita than other countries do.
  • Rates of poverty and child poverty in the US are the highest among wealthy countries, and more than double the average in Europe.

Yet sadly, the American economic model is becoming more dominant, even in Europe. We are sacrificing our health, happiness, social connection, leisure time and the environment in the blind pursuit of growth. We can’t go on like this.

Bhutan’s gross national happiness

Forty years ago, King Jigmi Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan was asked what he was going to do to improve his nation’s gross national product (GNP). He replied, “Gross national happiness is more important than gross national product.” In 2004, with the assistance of the United Nations Development Programme, Bhutan brought in a group of scientists and developed its first happiness survey based on nine domains of life: material well-being, good governance, environmental quality and access to nature, community well-being, cultural well-being, education, health, psychological well-being and time balance. 

For all ages, closer community ties bring greater happiness [EPA]

At the same time, Bhutan identified 72 objective metrics for the nine domains of happiness. Subjective survey results, complemented by these objective metrics, are now used to guide policy decisions and allocation of resources in Bhutan. Recently, for example, when faced with deciding whether to build a dam in a large Himalayan valley so it could sell hydropower, the government decided that preservation of ecosystems and the value of nature to Bhutanese culture outweighed expected monetary gain.

A handful of world leaders have already been following the example of Bhutan. British Prime Minister David Cameron says he wants his legacy to be a measure of happiness. The United Kingdom’s Office of National Statistics conducted its first survey and found the British to be “unhappy” about work, family, education and health care, but not very concerned about climate change.

In 2010, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy strongly urged all world leaders to consider happiness and well-being measures in addition to GDP. 

In Sao Paulo, Brazil, an organisation called Future Vision is working with high school students, training them to go door-to-door in neighbourhoods, survey residents’ well-being, and hold town meetings. An unexpected outcome of these projects is a newfound respect between neighborhood residents and youth.

Canada recently issued its first Index of Well-Being, using objective metrics. These well-being indicators will be considered in forming public policy. At the same time, the City of Victoria in British Columbia refined the survey used in Bhutan and was the first to survey its population, using a random sample. That work brought refreshed awareness to Mayor Dean Fortin who believes we need to find different models of success: “Our children will not be the consumers that we are. Our world cannot afford that level of overconsumption.” Their idea sparked our project.

The Happiness Initiative

The Happiness Initiative began as Sustainable Seattle’s fifth set of regional sustainability indicators, but has now become an independent project. We launched the project by putting Victoria’s happiness survey online in January of 2011. People from every state in the US took it, as did 500 people from other countries. The survey was a shortened version of Bhutan’s, but still took half an hour to complete (a problematic length in an age of short attention spans).

The first happiness report card: In November 2011, we issued our first happiness report card to the City Council of Seattle, which had unanimously proclaimed it would consider the results in future policymaking.

The first happiness report card compiled the results of 7,200 people who completed the survey, including 2,600 from the Seattle area. The happiness report card for the Seattle area found that the lowest score was in time balance. Scores were also low in community participation and satisfaction with government. Scores were high in material well-being and psychological well-being, but the objective metrics tell a somewhat different story. For example, average income trends down and reports of domestic violence are up.

Perhaps the most surprising finding in the Seattle report was that youth, aged between 19 and 24, were the least satisfied age group. They scored low in affect, satisfaction with life, time balance, the environment and material well-being. This differs from previous results in well-being research. While it may be that our sample is not fully representative of youth, the Occupy movement and consistent messages of environmental decline and unemployment rates may play a role in the gloomier outlook among young people. For all ages, closer community ties bring greater happiness.

Immigrants were even less happy than youth. A Seattle Department of Neighbourhoods grant allowed us to translate the survey into several languages used commonly by immigrants in the city. Local organisations serving the Vietnamese, Somali, Oromo and Filipino communities used these surveys with immigrants. In all domains, their scores were well below (10 to 25 percent) city averages, particularly in “confidence in government”. Community meetings were held to address the issues; one held by the Vietnamese Friendship Association drew 200 local community members and many city and police officials. While being taught how to make Vietnamese “spring” rolls, the group looked for ways to increase trust and understanding. 

“Rates of poverty and child poverty in the US are the highest among wealthy countries, and more than double the average in Europe.”

New, shorter survey now available

We have also launched a new, shorter, fully validated and more effective survey. The new survey includes 10 domains of well-being. It was developed by a team led by San Francisco State University’s Ryan Howell, who says, “When you take into account both time efficiency and comprehensiveness, I firmly believe this is the best well-being survey out there anywhere. Individuals, organisations, academic institutions and governments can all benefit from using this survey.”

A representative sampling of Americans has been taken to provide baseline data for the new survey. Each survey-taker receives a personal score, comparing the taker’s well-being in each of the 10 domains with a national average score. Aggregate results are provided to communities by zip code or to organisations using referral codes or unique URLs.

Here is the latest data from the survey.

Across the US, city council members, city managers, members of regional governing boards and many community activists are showing interest. In Eau Claire, Wisconsin, a city of 66,000, the city manager convened a team including local universities, the chamber of commerce, the public library and other organisations to launch an initiative. Many colleges and universities are also beginning class- or campus-wide initiatives. Students at Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire are conducting the survey on campus and in the nearby town of New London as part of a transitional town’s initiative.

Internationally, interest in the Happiness Initiative is also growing. At the Balaton meeting, Gyongyver Gyene, a professor and community activist from Budapest, Hungary, declared, “A happiness initiative in our transitioning area could be very timely as we negotiate increasing tension, economic instability, and rapid changes to our built and social environments in Budapest.” Swapan Metha, who led an effort that brought 10,000 youth to march in the streets of New Dehli, India, to protest corruption, added, “It is important that people have a way to communicate what really matters to them, and for policy makers and other decision makers to hear this. Our current systems are not working, so maybe something like this could make a difference.”

There are nine steps to conducting a happiness initiative:

1. Form a happiness team. For a city or town, this includes people representing local government, universities, or other educational institutions, business representatives, health authorities, community-based organisations and other institutions such as the public library. We have developed toolkits so that anyone can measure happiness. These can be found here. Each organisation is encouraged to proclaim its public support for the project and a model proclamation is included in the toolkit. 

2. Conduct the survey, using a unique URL provided by the Happiness Initiative (email for the URL). This will allow your community, college, or organisation to receive your specific aggregate survey results. The survey can be conducted in two ways: a voluntary “opt-in” survey that is continually available online so that individuals can take the survey and access their own comprehensive well-being assessment as a path to deep self-reflection. If there is funding, a city should also try to conduct a random sampling to get the most scientifically valid results.

3. Determine and gather data for objective metrics. Many areas already have their objective metrics, but the Happiness Initiative suggests indicators for organisations and areas that don’t already have them.

4. Issue a happiness report card to the team members and for the public. The content of the report depends on the level of analysis. A basic report includes just the survey results and objective metrics for the domains of happiness. A detailed report analyses correlations and demographic trends.

5. Reconvene the team and bring in new partners. Who should be at the table? Who should know about the state of well-being in the area? Who is positioned to take positive action or make things happen? These are the partners to include on the team at this point.

6. Convene town meetings to discuss the happiness report and explore where people are hurting and where they are thriving. Ask questions to find out what people want to do themselves, and want to see done by local policy makers, businesses and not-for-profits. 

More than a third of Americans over 45 report being chronically lonely, up from 20 percent in 2000 [Reuters]

7. Conduct happiness projects where resources are available. These can be small individual actions or large community-scale initiatives. Team partners may make policy changes or use the report card to inform resource allocation decisions. These, too, can be collected for the next step.

8. Issue a happy town report that compiles the community input from the town meetings and explains the happiness projects. The report should be issued to the team, but also be released to the media in order to inform the public.

9. Reconvene the team to interpret and learn from the results, and decide when the next assessment should occur.

Supporting activities for a happiness initiative include creating a website for the project or web pages on a team member’s website. Attracting positive media attention will encourage more people to take the survey and lend greater support for policy makers who use the results. Thus far, the media have loved the project, with coverage ranging from Al Jazeera to Reuters and the Atlantic.

Pursuit of happiness day and week

As part of the Happiness Initiative, and in partnership with many other organisations, we are co-sponsoring Pursuit of Happiness Day on April 13, 2013, (the birthday of Thomas Jefferson) followed by a week of “Sustainable Happiness” ideas leading up to Earth Day. In 2012, Vermont’s governor proclaimed Pursuit of Happiness Day and the event was celebrated on several colleges. More information can be found here.

Forty years ago, Limits to Growth warned us that we needed to slow down our rates of production and consumption, pollution, resource depletion, food production and population growth. We did not. Twenty years ago, Sustainable Seattle created the first set of regional sustainability indicators so policy makers and businesses would truly value and preserve our natural, built, social and personal environment. They didn’t. Now we must prepare ourselves for the future. The Happiness Initiative is just one of many solutions that can help us adapt. It uses a personal approach by asking questions; and by providing a platform for conversations to spark actions for our well-being.

It has now been 100 years since that January day in 1912 when thousands of mill workers, most of them immigrant women, left their jobs and marched in the snowy streets of Lawrence, Massachusetts, demanding “bread, and roses, too”. They knew they needed “bread” – a raise in wages from 16 to 18 cents per hour. But they also needed many non-material things including shorter working time – “to smell the roses”. As the great labour song put it: “Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew… hearts starve as well as bodies…”

Since the triumph of the consumer society after World War II, our focus has been entirely on the bread, the money, the stuff, what we measure with GDP. But the non-material side of life – love, art, beauty, time, caring, connection, nature and so much more – all that counts for nothing as far as GDP is concerned unless we buy it, all the most important things in life that are not things at all but that truly make us happy – all the “roses” have been left to wilt. It’s time to value them again, time to count them again, time to water them again.

Join us, not only to measure happiness, but to find it as well!

Laura Musikanski is executive director and co-founder of The Happiness Initiative. She is the author of How to Account for Sustainability: A guide to measuring and managing.

John de Graaf is the executive director of TAKE BACK YOUR TIME, an organisation challenging time poverty and overwork in the US and Canada. He is also a documentary filmmaker and the co-producer of the popular PBS special, AFFLUENZA. He is the co-author of Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (2001) and of the upcoming What’s the Economy For, Anyway? (Bloomsbury, 2011). 

A version of this article first appeared on the Solutions Journal.