'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?

As I noted in a previous post, Swiss writer and philosophical analyst Alain de Botton believes that architecture and planning directly affect happiness. The passage that I quoted then bears repeating:

One of the great, but often unmentioned, causes of both happiness and misery is the quality of our environment: the kind of walls, chairs, buildings and streets we're surrounded by.

And yet a concern for architecture and design is too often described as frivolous, even self-indulgent. The Architecture of Happiness starts from the idea that where we are heavily influences who we can be—and argues that it is architecture's task to stand as an eloquent reminder of our full potential.

Whereas many architects are wary of openly discussing the word beauty, the book has at its centre the large and naïve question: 'What is a beautiful building?' It amounts to a tour through the philosophy and psychology of architecture, which aims to change the way we think about our homes, streets and ourselves.

The post in which I quoted de Botton ("Constructing a city around the concept of happiness") focused on former Bogata mayor Enrique Penalosa, who made establishing municipal resources that support quality of life (notably including the TransMilenio bus rapid transit system) the centerpiece of his term. Penalosa said, "With our limited resources, we have to invent other ways to measure success. This might mean that all kids have access to sports facilities, libraries, parks, schools, nurseries."

In another context, Penalosa "talked about his belief that we should strive to create 'Cities of Joy,'" wrote Catherine O'Brien in a conference paper reviewing the ties among transportation, children, urban planning, and happiness. She adds:

Children's view of transportation (when walking to school) reminds us that transportation is not only about 'moving people and goods'. It is about wonder, discovery, joy and happiness.


Community characteristics do matter to us. A three-year survey by Gallup of some 43,000 Americans living in 26 U.S. cities reported last year that people identify most strongly with their communities when they perceive them favorably with respect to social offerings, openness, and the aesthetic environment. The "Soul of the Community" survey, conducted for the Knight Foundation, found these factors to be more determinative of "resident attachment" to a place than others such as civic involvement, social capital, education, perception of the local economy, leadership, safety, emotional well-being, and basic services.

To bring the discussion closer to the concept of sustainability, Vancouver's Mark Holland is a founder of an organization called the Healing Cities Working Group, whose mission statement asks, in part, "how might the built form and natural spaces of the city nurture and develop its residents' holistic health—to include addressing physical, emotional, mental, social and spiritual needs?" Holland answers his own question with a set of "pillars" that support a sustainable community:

  1. A complete community
  2. An environmentally friendly and community-oriented transportation system
  3. Green buildings
  4. Multi-tasked open space
  5. Green infrastructure
  6. A healthy food system
  7. Community facilities and programs
  8. Economic development

(I explain a bit more and elaborate on the concept of "healing cities" and Holland's pillars here.)

Whatever the reasons, some cities are perceived as "happier" than others. Internationally, Forbes compiled online interviews with 10,000 respondents in 20 countries, who collectively ranked the top five as Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Melbourne (ah, those jolly Aussies). In the U.S., the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index was based on interviews during 2009 that asked more than 353,000 (!) Americans to assess their jobs, finances, physical health, emotional state of mind, and communities. USA Today, in a story written by Susan Page, reported the 10 top-scoring cities (out of 162 total) as Boulder, Colorado; Holland-Grand Haven, Michigan (who knew?); Honolulu, Hawaii; Provo-Orum, Utah; Santa Rosa-Petaluma, California; Santa Barbara-Santa Maria, California; San Jose, California; the Washington, D.C. area; Ogden, Utah; and Thousand Oaks-Oxnard, California.  At the very bottom? Huntington, WV/Ashland, KY.

What to do

I pretty much agree with all of the concepts put forward by Holland, Penalosa, O'Brien, the Knight study, and de Botton regarding how our physical environment can and should be shaped in order to nurture our well-being. With respect to environmental issues in particular, I see cities as a solution for environmental quality, not the problem, and everything we can do to make them more attractive, hospitable, and appealing is to the good. As I have written repeatedly and as so many of my colleagues and fellow travelers have also articulated, working toward these specific ends is good for the planet and good for our health, and we should structure as much public policy as we can to enable and support them. I hope Seattle and Victoria take note and do more than just assess these factors.

But will they also make us happy? I don't know about that part—that's a big "ask," as the increasing number of people around me who like to use verbs as if they were nouns tend to say. Right now I'm thinking a freshly drawn pint of Guinness in the company of very good friends and very good music might get me a little closer to my personal happy spot. Maybe we could even chat about Thomas Jefferson a little.

But let's work toward these goals anyway. I believe they will make our communities better, and at least establish favorable conditions for the pursuit of happiness and many other good things. Whether that pursuit actually reaches its goal or not will remain up to us and the Fates.

This post also appears on NRDC's Switchboard.
Images (top to bottom): Ed Yourdon/flickr, laihiu/flickr, skinnylawyer/flickr, Shayne Kaye/flickr