Taking all things together, how happy would you say you are? And, all things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole nowadays?
Those may sound like rather personal questions to ask. However, a recent report from the Earth Institute at Columbia University suggests that they are in fact among the most important questions that countries – and communities – can be asking their citizens. The first-ever World Happiness Report was commissioned for the United Nations Conference on Happiness held in early April, and takes a serious look at factors that contribute to individuals’ sense of well-being, and how this measure of “happiness” tracks across nations.
Interestingly, the research revealed that, while richer countries do tend to be happier, social factors – such as the strength of social support, the absence of corruption, and the degree of personal freedom – were actually more important for happiness than income. Looking beyond income and work, key determinants of happiness included community and governance, as well as values and religion. Personal aspects of happiness included mental and physical health, in addition to family experience, education, gender, and age.
For policy makers, the report suggests that there is an important opportunity to help promote and improve the environmental factors that can impact happiness, and to balance the compelling arguments for these policy directions carefully against the arguments for economic growth (as typically measured through GDP). Values such as altruism (i.e., opportunities to volunteer, donate, participate, and “make a difference”) and environment (i.e., concerns about the future of the planet, as well as the impact of the existing environment on adults today) are but two examples of areas where local government policy makers may be able to help effect a positive change in overall community happiness.
To illustrate, a 2011 study by E.K. Nisbet and J.M. Zelenski cited in the report may be helpful. This Canadian research (conducted at Carleton University) found that people walking on a tree-lined path beside the river were measurably more happy than those taking the same trip through an underground tunnel system – and that the actual increases in happiness were much higher than people anticipated they would be. For programs like Communities in Bloom and the LivCom Awards, and the communities that participate in these and similar initiatives (you can find great examples throughout the May 2012 issue of Municipal World), this research confirms how important it is for policy makers to pay attention to the natural environment. It offers an unmatched opportunity to improve quality of life in the community, and to increase the sense of well-being and happiness for the people who live there.
You can find the World Happiness Report online at <www.earth.columbia.edu/articles/ view/2960>.