Does Your Town Need a Happiness Initiative?

by Lisa Mastny   |   November 17, 2011

Happiness Initiative

What if you could accurately measure the happiness of your community based on specific parameters like physical health, material well-being, and even overall work-life balance?

The benefits would be numerous: Policymakers would have a better sense of where to direct limited resources and policy attention. Nonprofits and businesses would be able to identify specific areas for community improvement. And residents would be able to assess how they compare, on average, with each other and with people in other regions, on everything from time availability to financial stability.

Fortunately, a relatively simple tool has been designed to do just that. The Seattle-based Happiness Alliance recently updated a carefully vetted, scientific survey to help individuals, businesses, and local governments measure people’s “life conditions and satisfaction” in 10 “domains” of happiness: Material Wellbeing, Physical Health, Time Balance, Psychological Wellbeing, Education and Learning, Cultural Vitality, Environmental Quality, Governance, Community Vitality, and Workplace Experience.

“The survey makes people think about their lives and about what’s important to them,” says Happiness Initiative Outreach and Media Director John de Graaf, author of the books Affluenza, Take Back Your Time and What’s the Economy for, Anyway? “It encourages us to take a more holistic view of ‘progress’ that extends beyond just GDP. Communities can get a sense of where they’re thriving and where they’re hurting, not just economically but in areas that really matter to people.”

How It Works

De Graaf believes the survey, created by psychology professor Ryan Howell and a research team at San Francisco State University, is “the best measurement of well-being out there anywhere.”

So how does it work? It’s simple: a person goes to the Happiness Initiative website and answers a series of online questions in each of the 10 domains of happiness. The site quickly compiles the results and provides an assessment of how the person compares in each of the 10 areas to a baseline sample of 700 Americans, where a score of 50 is the average. If a person gets a score of 75 in “Environmental Quality," for example, this indicates the person’s above-average satisfaction with the environmental amenities in his or her community. Similarly, a score of 25 in “Governance” suggests that the person has low confidence or trust in local government.

In addition to providing individual responses, the Happiness Initiative team is aggregating the survey responses (while carefully respecting people’s privacy) to obtain an overall national assessment score. The most significant findings so far? “We’re discovering the huge importance of community-building for people’s well-being,” says de Graaf.  “Perhaps not surprisingly, we’ve found that people who live with others, for example, are happier than those who live alone.”

But one of the more unexpected recent findings, according to de Graaf, is that young people (ages 19 to 24) are not faring as well as they once were. “Typically, when we do happiness surveys, we find that people are happy when they are younger, less happy in middle age, and then happy again when they get older. But this isn’t necessarily the case anymore as young people face greater college debt loads and uncertain job futures.”

The potential applications of the Happiness Alliance's approach are numerous. In addition to local governments or community groups using the survey to assess the well-being of local residents, a business or workplace could, for example, use it to measure employees’ satisfaction with their work environment, and tailor its responses accordingly. “Our results show that the lowest scores are consistently in the domain of ‘Time Balance,’ indicating that many American workers face high levels of stress,” explains de Graaf. “If companies are smart, they will make institutional changes to address this, such as instituting paid vacation or sick day policies, or flexible workweeks.”

Other areas with lower aggregate scores are confidence in government and financial security, which may not be surprising given today’s economic and political climate. “International studies show that greater economic inequality decreases happiness,” says de Graaf. “If you look at the Gallup-Healthways rankings, which are based on very solid science, the world’s happiest countries—Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Netherlands—are the most egalitarian, have the best time balance, and also pay the highest taxes. The U.S. is eleventh on the list.”

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

This idea of measuring happiness on a broad scale isn’t new. As early as 1972, the Kingdom of Bhutan launched an ambitious large-scale effort to measure “Gross National Happiness,” basing its assessment on nine of the 10 domains outlined above. A group in Victoria, British Columbia, took on the task of adapting the approach to Western audiences. U.S. researchers later added a tenth variable—Workplace Experience—because polls show that, for good or for bad, a person’s place of work occupies a good portion of his or her mental and physical space.

In some ways, the Happiness Alliance is helping America return to its roots. “In reality, happiness is the original American Dream,” says Happiness Initiative Executive Director, Laura Musikanski. “Thomas Jefferson once wrote that the sole purpose of government is to increase the happiness of people.” With this in mind, Musikanski’s team is promoting Jefferson’s birthday, April 13, as “Pursuit of Happiness Day,” encouraging communities that are using the survey to look at their scores and engage in broader conversations around the issues they illuminate.

Across the country, interest in the Happiness Initiative—and the opportunities it offers for community development—is growing. Seattle, where the group is based, has taken the concept the furthest, with the City Council unanimously adopting the approach as a means to assess citywide well-being.

At least 20 other U.S. cities are interested in the Happiness Alliance, from Santa Fe, New Mexico and Montpelier, Vermont to Decorah, Iowa, a town of 8,000 in America’s heartland.  Eau Claire, Wisconsin, a city of 66,000, developed a city happiness partnership and its own Happiness Initiative website, The president of Seattle’s City Council recently suggested that the National League of Cities—a nonprofit that serves as a resource to and an advocate for more than 19,000 U.S. cities, villages, and towns—consider the methodology. In doing so, a community can access tools to create its own tailored “Happiness Initiative” website to serve as a hub for survey results and related information.

De Graaf notes that some 100 colleges nationwide expect to use the survey to assess students’ well-being, and that people in at least eight other countries—including Spain, Hungary, Sweden, the Netherlands, Japan, Mexico, India, and Namibia—are investigating using the approach on a national scale. According to de Graaf, students in Sâo Paolo, Brazil have been going door to door in slum neighborhoods encouraging residents to take a version of the survey, in an effort to better gauge community needs.

De Graaf acknowledges that some of the policy implications of the survey may be clearer at the national level than at the local level. For instance, countries like the U.K., Brazil, Canada, and France are now considering the use of well-being indicators, in addition to GDP, to assess progress. And certain domains of happiness, such as “Time Balance,” may be harder to address than others. Broader solutions include steps like reducing commute times, tackling urban sprawl, and increasing density. But local governments can also pass more discrete measures such as requiring employers to provide paid sick days, which is currently law only in Milwaukee, San Francisco, Seattle, and the District of Columbia.

In addition to the survey, the Happiness Alliance will soon be offering more specific modules to enable communities to perform more in-depth assessments in particular areas like the environment, consumerism, and even compassion. People could then compare these results to their overall happiness score.

Interested in Bringing the Happiness Initiative to Your Community?

Contact the leaders of the initiative at and download the toolkit from the Happiness Alliance’s website at

Also, watch this 9-minute video from KCTS9, the Seattle PBS affiliate, on how the Happiness Alliance got started [the happiness segment starts two minutes into the program].

Lisa Mastny is Director of Communications and Online Media at New Dream.