Jul 27, 2011

Measuring Happiness at an agency and individual level. A note about the United Nations resolution for states to measure happiness.

Posting by Laura Musikanski, Executive Director of Sustainable Seattle

On June 20th, The Happiness Initiative took a big step forward. The Seattle city Council made a Happiness Proclamation. They stated they will “consult the available happiness data … as (they) pursues future policy options in a time of scarce resources at least once a year…” So how is the Happiness Initiative measuring happiness? Very personally. But we will get to that.

On July 19th, The United Nations asked countries to measure happiness. They did this by adopting a resolution called “Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development.” In the resolution, they tied well-being, sustainability and happiness together. By doing this, they implicitly settled the question of whether external conditions are separate from feelings for happiness.

What the United Nations is saying is that it is not enough to just “take control of your life” and feel happy. The conditions we live in make a difference. Policies influence whether or not you feel happy. The Government has a stake in whether or not you have an opportunity to pursue happiness.

This is the resolution:

Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development

The General Assembly,

Bearing in mind the purpose and principles of the United Nations as set forth in the Charter of the United Nations that include the promotion of the economic advancement and social progress of all peoples.

Conscious that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal,

Cognizant that happiness as a universal goal and aspiration embodies the spirit of the Millennium Development Goals,

Recognizing that the gross domestic product indicator by nature was not designed to and does not adequately reflect the happiness and wellbeing of people in a country,

Conscious that unsustainable patters of production and consumption can impede sustainable development, and recognizing the need for a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and well-being of all peoples,

Acknowledging the needs to promote sustainable development and achieve the Millennium Development Goals,

  1. 1. Invites Member States to pursue the elaboration of additional measures that better capture the importance of the pursuit of happiness and well-being in development with a view to guiding their public policies;

  1. 2. Invites those Member States that have taken initiatives to develop new indicators and other initiatives to share information thereon with the Secretary-General as a contributor to the United Nations development agenda, including the Millennium Development Goals;

  1. 3. Welcomes the offer of Bhutan to convene a panel discussion on the theme of happiness and well-being during is sixty –sixth session;

  1. 4. Invites the Secretary-General to seek the views of Member States and relevant regional and international organizations on the pursuit of happiness and well-being and to communicate such views to the General Assembly at its sixty-seventh session for further consideration.

We think this is wonderful, but not enough. These are all big goals with big players using big words. And that is all good, and necessary.

The Millennium Eight Development goals and reports are inspirational if for no other reason that it breaks your heart to live in a world where children do not have enough to eat, mothers and babies die unnecessarily, youth can not go to school, women are suppressed, curable diseases kill and the natural environment is dying. We need international and national efforts.

And we need the people on the street. People like you and I who do not have access to the United Nations, who are not policy makers, but who are just people.

We need these people to be the measure. Not to be measured – but to be the measure. This way, people can “be” the change in a complete partnership with government.

And this is the measure of happiness that the Happiness Initiative uses. It’s beyond grass roots. It is the people.

The Happiness Initiative is based on the work Bhutan has been doing. It measures wellbeing, sustainability and happiness with a survey complemented by objective metrics to tell a balanced picture. The project is designed so anyone in any area can conduct a happiness Initiative and get a measure of their community, town or city. It is accessible and open. Today, someone only need to go to sustainableseattle.org/sahi and download a toolkit to start their own Happiness Initiative. In September, we will have a website package with a host of other tools for conducing Happiness Initiatives. In Seattle, the city council has made a proclamation that they will “consult the available happiness data… as (they) pursues future policy options in a time of scarce resources...” We are working with people from towns and cities in Washington, Oregon, Wisconsin, Iowa and Vermont to get Happiness Initiatives going. This is what we mean by accessible- anyone can start measuring happiness.

But what we are really excited about is the openness of the project. The survey is the key. It is online and anyone anywhere with access to the internet at any time. When you take the survey two things happen: First, you are asked questions about your own life experiences. These are very personal questions. (Personal data is secure – we follow European Commission Personal Data Protecting Directive 95/46/EC.) You will see your personal scores, which tell you how you assess your own happiness. The second thing you do is create data. The more people who take the survey, the more data. With local governments listening, this is a powerful way to be the change.

Over 7000 people have taken the survey. People from every state in the USA, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and 500 people from outside the USA have taken the survey. We will be issuing our first report in a month.

And you are probably asking two questions: What about people who do not have access to the internet or do not speak English? And what about representation?

We are translating the survey into Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and other languages. It will soon be in an app geared for youth. In Seattle, we are going into food banks to survey the homeless, and creating guidelines for others. We will be doing the same for domestic violence victims (25% of the population), men of color, and those living at or below poverty.

This all still begs the question of representation. Is the data representative of the population? We are working to find a solution so each area that conducts a Happiness Initiative will have access to the resources so a representative survey can be done. This means a pollster comes in and surveys a random sample. At the same time, our research indicates that if a large enough number of people take the survey, the results are within a point or two of a representative survey. How do we know this? Because surveys are composed of other surveys that are tried and true – or “verified.” Parts of the Happiness Survey are based on other organization’s survey and we can compare data. All in all, if enough people take the survey in any area, the data will probably tells truth.

We recognize the importance of a representative survey. But the problem with these surveys is people usually do not get their own scores, and access to the survey is controlled by a few.

We believe that openness is the way to reach our vision of a healthy, just and sustainable society where all have equal opportunity to pursue happiness. And so, we will keep the survey online and continue expanding it into other languages and ways for people to take. We will continue to work with other areas to conduct Happiness Initiatives. We will continue linking the survey to local governments that are listening to the survey results.

We believe that it is all of us regular people who can and will be the change. We believe in a world where all will have equal opportunity to pursue happiness, with sustainability and wellbeing all around us.

We invite you to believe with us – take the survey, conduct a happiness initiative in your area.

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