'The Pursuit of Happiness': How Do Communities Make Us Happy?

In advance of the Fourth of July, a look at public efforts to promote happiness—and what our governments can learn from them


In a few days, we Americans will celebrate the 235th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. We take it for granted now, but that remarkable document was crafted by some enormously eloquent and gifted individuals, chief among them Thomas Jefferson. Nearly all of us are familiar with its language:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Today I am thinking about the concept of "happiness" as an objective of our nation. It is the only right mentioned not once but twice in that powerful opening to the founders' declaration of "the causes which impel[led] them to the separation" of the colonies from the authority of the king of Great Britain. 

So the concept of happiness is embedded in our national DNA. But does "the pursuit" of this "inalienable Right" have meaning for public policy? For community? For the environment? For land use and planning? 

Public efforts around happiness

The government of the Himalayan country of Bhutan seems to think so. In particular, Bhutan surveys its citizens in nine key aspects of happiness:

  • Psychological well-being
  • Physical health
  • Time or work-life balance
  • Social vitality and connection
  • Education
  • Arts and culture
  • Environment and nature
  • Good government
  • Material well-being

The use of a "gross national happiness" index has been a policy of Bhutan now for nearly four decades.

As a result of a more recent initiative, the government of Victoria, British Columbia has been participating in a Happiness Index Partnership comprising the Victoria Foundation, United Way, the University of Victoria, and several local and provincial government agencies to undertake a well-being survey. Among the findings:

Most residents of Greater Victoria experience relatively high level of wellbeing. These high levels of wellbeing are buoyed by strong social relations, feelings of connectedness to community, and relatively low levels of material deprivation for most members of the community. The primary factors that limit a greater sense of wellbeing across the population are time stresses and the challenges of living a more balanced life.

There are, however, significant populations who experience lower levels of wellbeing—particularly low-income earners and single parents. These groups also face substantial time stresses but are less likely to enjoy the material and social supports that help to buttress the effects of the stress on their sense of wellbeing.


While the overall findings were positive, only 26 percent of the Victoria respondents reported that they spent most or all of their time in a typical week doing things that they enjoyed, according to a summary report. About the same portion reported that "not much" of their time was spent on enjoyable activities. Only 31 percent described their lives as "not very" or "not at all" stressful.

(Some scholars see the study of happiness as a branch of economics, or at least a critical examination of traditional macroeconomics. It is way beyond the scope of this blog post to discuss the academic aspects, but among the works that discuss it in detail are Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, by noted British economist Lord Richard Layard; Economic Growth and Subjective Well-Being: Reassessing the Easterlin Paradox, by the University of Pennsylvania's Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers; and The Pursuit of Happiness: Toward an Economy of Well-Being, by Carol Graham, senior fellow in global economy and development at the Brookings Institution.)

Seattle's initiative

Here in the US, an organization called Sustainable Seattle believes that happiness is an important policy objective whose achievement can be measured. The organization believes that Seattle, and by extension the U.S., should maintain a gross national happiness index to stand alongside economic measures such as gross domestic product. They, too, are conducting a survey.


The Seattle initiative's "objective indicators" of happiness include the poverty rate, air emissions, voter turnout, graduation rates, volunteer rates, rates of domestic violence and other crime, life expectancy, commute time, work time, and others. Nearly 2,500 residents of Seattle have taken the initiative's 135-question survey, says Eldan Goldenberg of Sustainable Seattle. Those who have apparently self-report favorably with respect to social connection, psychological well-being, and material well-being. but less well in their assessment of environmental quality and "time balance." 

Earlier this month the Seattle City Council unanimously endorsed the initiative, according to a report by Jake Ellison for public radio station KPIU. City Council President Richard Conlin said in a press release that "[m]easuring the subjective happiness or well-being levels of Seattle residents is an important tool that can help our council make effective policy decisions and can engage our community in conversations about what we really want from life and from our economy."

To be honest, I'm not sure many if any of these indicators really measure "happiness," as most of us use the word, or even "psychological well-being."  I'm not sure that Bhutan's and Victoria's factors measure happiness, either. That does not mean, however, that I discount their relevance as conditions we should care about: the endeavor may be misnamed, but it still reveals important information that we should take note of as we evaluate public policy and the shape and direction of communities.

But is this something for government?

Patrick Rottinghaus of the department of psychology, Southern Illinois University, believes that well-being and, yes, happiness are appropriate matters of government concern. In an article written by Ann Pietrangelo for the Natural Choice Directory, he put it this way:

We have an obligation to ourselves, and more importantly, to the next generation to implement policies and engage in life enhancing strategies that yield greater happiness.... Such a quest is not easy or quickly attained; therefore, we must support policies that invest in future generations and not be too concerned about immediate results that are so often demanded by people. We need a moment to chill out and then carve out resources of time and money to build a structure for achieving happiness.

ICLEI, the international consortium of local governments for sustainability, would agree:

Municipal leaders play a direct role in human happiness because they deliver the services (water, electricity, transportation, public services) and set the framework conditions (taxes, building codes, policies, plans) of a person's everyday life.

Happiness was a theme of the organization's conference last year on the future of cities.

Implications for cities and the built environment

So what are the specific implications for communities and our built environment? 

Presented by

Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More

Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.

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