05 April 2011

What's Happiness Got to Do With It?

Reposted from Sustainable Seattle, February 2011


Sustainability is a big word. At its core, it’s about people. It’s about whether you and I and our grandchildren’s grandchildren will be able to live on this planet and enjoy life now and forever.

We often confuse sustainability with the environmental movement. We say it’s all about preserving a tract of land or restoring habitat for another species. Or we say it’s all about local economies and local food systems. Or we say it’s all about human rights and fair labor. Really, its all about all of this. It’s about everything. That’s because we need a healthy just and equitable environment, society and economy. We need it all now and forever so we can live – and enjoy life.

So what’s happiness got to do with it? Happiness is just a word, right? Just a feeling. No, it’s not. At least not when we are talking about sustainability, and sustainability indicators. And it’s with the indicators that we get somewhere. That’s because no matter who or where you are, you get what you measure. In other words, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.

Sustainable Seattle was the first to create a set of regional sustainability measures – or indicators. These indicators inherently asked people to make decisions and take actions so the measurements would change. Hundreds of cities and regions followed suit, and the field of sustainability indicators was born.

But before Sustainable Seattle came along, the country of Bhutan started measuring happiness. They decided to do this instead of measuring gross national product. Now, they included a measure much like GNP in measuring happiness, but they say GNP as just one part of happiness. They decided the happiness of their country was based on 9 domains. These domains are:

Psychological Well-Being: Assesses the degree of satisfaction and optimism in individual life. The indicators analyze self-esteem, sense of competence, stress, spiritual activities and prevalence of positive and negative emotions.

Health: Measures the effectiveness of health policies, with criteria such as self-rated health, disability, patterns of risk behavior, exercise, sleep, nutrition, etc.

Time Balance: The use of time is one of the most significant factors in quality of life, especially time for recreation and socializing with family and friends. A balanced management of time is evaluated, including time spent in traffic jams, at work, in educational activities, etc.

Community Vitality: Focuses on relationships and interactions in communities. Examines the level of confidence, the sense of belonging, the vitality of affectionate relationships, safety at home and in the community, and the practice of giving and volunteering.

Education: Takes into account several factors such as participation in formal and informal education, development of skills and capabilities, involvement in children’s education, values education, environmental education, etc.

Cultural Vitality: Evaluates local traditions, festival, core values, participation in cultural events, opportunities to develop artistic skills and discrimination due to religion, race or gender.

Environmental Quality: Measures the perception of citizens about the quality of their water, air, soil, forest cover, biodiversity, etc. The indicators include access to green areas, system of waste management, etc.

Governance: Assesses how the population views the government, the media, the judiciary, the electoral system, and the police, in terms of responsibility, honesty and transparency. It also measures involvement of citizens in community decisions and political processes.

Material Well-Being: Evaluates individual and family income, financial security, the level of debt, employment security, the quality of housing, etc.

Measuring these nine domains means we make decisions and take actions to improve them. It means we care about our psychological health as much as our economy; about our culture as much as our environment; our community as much as our government. It means we see our own happiness as inextricably tied to our community, environment, and economy. It means happiness is sustainability.'

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