March 28, 2011 / 8:15 PM / 9 years ago

Measuring Happiness in Seattle - an Emerging Model

In 1991, six people came together to form the first sustainable communities organization. They called it Sustainable Seattle. This was their idea: Let’s create the world’s first set of regional sustainability indicators, and let’s do it by asking people how they define sustainability in terms of what to measure.

Fast-forward a generation to 2011. The original six are now world-renowned international consultants, politicians, authors and community activists. The Sustainable Seattle they founded spurred the creation of regional sustainability indicators through grassroots activism across the globe (and won them an award from the United Nations) and inspired the emergence of hundreds of sustainable community projects.

From Sustainable Pittsburgh to Sustainable Ballard or Sustainable North Carolina, such projects are everywhere. There may be one in your neighborhood or city. Yet, with all its successes, during the first decade of this century Sustainable Seattle lost its way and came close to dying. And, in spite of all those regional sustainability indicator projects, the state of our environment, economy and society just seems to keep getting worse.

Now hit pause. Sustainable Seattle rose from the ashes this year with the Happiness Initiative. Its leadership decided to look at their own failures and successes and those of the sustainability movement, and tried something different, but not completely different. They had, another idea - let’s look at what is really working, maybe not perfectly, but still causing positive change and bring it home. Let’s use a model that is replicable and applicable for any city or region. Let’s find a way that anybody - from kids to grandmas, sustainability experts to business managers and politicians, neighborhood groups or multinational enterprises - can take sustainability personally, very personally. They discovered a project, started in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, but used closer to home in Victoria, British Columbia.

Time to hit play. Sustainable Seattle in partnership with Take Back Your Time and the Compassionate Action Network launched its fifth set of regional sustainability indicators this year. It’s called the Happiness Initiative. Its mission is to provide a comprehensive assessment of well -being and to inspire and engage people, organizations and policymakers to action. It includes a subjective survey of happiness and a simple set of objective indicators to measure personal and community well-being.

The survey is the personal part. There are questions about nine domains of happiness identified by Bhutan: material well-being, environmental quality, good governance, health, psychological well-being, time balance, community vitality, cultural vitality and education. It takes about 25 minutes to do. When you take it, you get your own results and you get to compare your results with those of all the others who have taken it.

Sustainable Seattle put the survey on the World Wide Web in January. Local media gave the project some attention, and within one week, more than 2,000 people took the survey. Since then the number has steadily climbed. Check it out at and click the orange button.

The survey is complemented by objective metrics to provide a more complete picture. For example, the survey asks, “Overall, how much do you personally worry about the state of the environment (e.g., water, soil, air, etc.)?” An objective metric is greenhouse gas emissions for your city or region. You can see results collected so far and the emerging objective metrics at Seattle City Council president Richard Conlin says the city will use the data to help shape public policy through a series of town meetings. Many other prominent Seattle civic, business and non-profit organizations are joining the partnership. Seattle hopes to become America’s first “happiness city” and spread the idea to other cities throughout the United States.

Victoria’s mayor, Dean Fortin, states, “Our children will not be the consumers that we are. The world can’t stand that level of over-consumption.” So we’ve got to find out what else makes us happy and improve on that.

So hit fast forward again: It’s 2020. What does our future look like? Your city and ours measuring well-being using the same indicators - a survey and objective metrics. Our city learned about actions policymakers took to address a low score in environmental health in your city and decided to borrow the idea. Our score went up, just like yours. Your city learned about actions ours was using to increase community vitality and you were inspired to do something similar. Your city’s score then went up. Objective metrics improve. Our cities are happier. Sustainability - that big, all-encompassing, comprehensive concept - is happening. We are taking care of our needs today and our grandchildren’s grandchildren will be able to take care of their needs. What a concept!

About Laura Musikanski

Laura Musikanski, JD, MBA, is the Executive Director of Sustainable Seattle. She is a lawyer and an MBA with a certificate in environmental management and policy from the University of Washington.

About John de Graaf

John de Graaf is a documentary filmmaker and the Executive Director of Take Back Your Time. He is the co-author of Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic. His most recent film is “What’s the economy for, Anyway?” He teaches occasionally at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA and lives in Seattle.

Photo by Wonderlane/flickr/Creative Commons

Reprinted with permission from CSRwire

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