Thomas Jefferson described ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ as what citizens should expect government to promote and enhance. But can we really find a way to judge ourselves based on those criteria? Usually we evaluate government – and social progress – using statistics that measure performance, most often economic performance, rather than whether people find their lives satisfying and have a sense of well-being.
Many of those statistics are useful and relevant. But a growing movement suggests that we would get a more complete picture if we used a combination of objective criteria and subjective surveys to find out whether what we are doing satisfies the priorities and goals of our people. The movement started in the country of Bhutan, is spreading around the world, and was brought to Seattle by the organization Sustainable Seattle, which was launched in the 1990’s (I was one of the co-founders) to find ways to move our city towards sustainability – and to develop indicators that would help us gauge our progress.
On November 17, Sustainable Seattle released its first “happiness report card,” and presented it to the City Council. The findings included in the report card come from a comprehensive voluntary, online survey of more than 2600 city residents, conducted during the first half of 2011. The survey measured nine “domains” of wellbeing (finances, time balance, education, access to arts and culture, environment, governance, health, mental health and social connection) and was a shorter version of a much larger survey created by United Nations-sponsored scientists for Bhutan.
So, how happy is Seattle? Fairly happy, but with some important causes for concern. Seattleites scored particularly well in such aspects of happiness as psychological health, support from friends and family, interpersonal trust and material wellbeing. But they reported important stresses from time pressure, worries about the environment and relatively low participation in their community and neighborhoods, reflecting national trends. Groups reporting lower life satisfaction included poorer residents, people living alone, middle-aged persons and 19-24 year olds.
Next steps for The Happiness Initiative in Seattle include translating the survey into several languages and holding town meetings to discuss survey findings and suggest ways to improve Seattle scores. I hope the Council will consider this data as it looks at future policy options, especially in a time of scarce resources. It could be an important way to guide our policy choices.
On July 19th, the UN asked all member governments to make “the pursuit of happiness” a central goal of public policy, and to find ways to measure their progress toward that end. The Seattle project will continue to be part of this worldwide movement, has developed a new survey instrument for the next round of surveys locally, and is working with other interested US cities. Eau Claire, Wisconsin has officially launched its version, guided by a “happiness team” including city and county governments, the chamber of commerce, the public library, local colleges (including the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire), a leading citizens’ organization called Clear Vision Eau Claire, and many other groups. Victoria, BC, has been a leader in this effort, and has already conducted its own survey. A number of other cities are looking at this idea, and I hope to conduct a workshop at the next National League of Cities conference exploring ways in which this work could be useful.