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Great places: turning from stuff to happiness

2011 June 28
by David Roberts

Note: this post originally appeared on Grist, and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.


Today, America is making a few people rich and leaving a great many others anxious, uncertain, unhealthy, or unemployed, all while doing irreversible damage to the planet. A whole nest of challenges lies ahead: We need to radically reduce our energy use, natural resource consumption, and CO2 emissions; ramp up our innovation in clean energy and efficiency technologies; rebuild our crumbling infrastructure; restore the health of the middle class; shrink the metastasizing income gap; reform our oligarchic political institutions; reverse trends toward diabetes, obesity, and heart disease; and reconnect to each other, to mitigate the spread of depression, stress, and alienation.

That’s a handful. What ties these challenges together is the need to reorient our policies (and our myths and narratives) away from financial capital and toward social capital, so that we’re measuring success in terms of physical and mental well-being rather than GDP. It means orienting public life around happiness rather than (just) material accumulation. (Happiness isn’t the best term here, but it’s handy. More accurate would be “eudaimonia” or, as researcher Martin Seligman now prefers, “flourishing.”)

There are, of course, many Americans in poverty, suffering food or housing insecurity, and many more for whom such insecurity is one accident or health problem away. For them, getting happier and getting wealthier remain closely aligned.

But for those who have reached a basic level of material comfort, satisfied the base levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the road to happiness is not paved with more wealth. Economist Andrew Oswald wrote a great piece about this phenomenon called “The Hippies Were Right All Along about Happiness” (PDF). He cites a growing body of research showing that wealth and well-being become progressively more decoupled as wealth increases. Above a certain level, more wealth makes virtually no difference to happiness, and there’s evidence most of us in the U.S. have reached that level. Our reported levels of well-being are roughly what our grandparents’ were, while the incidence of depression and stress has actually risen and the suicide rate has stayed roughly stable.

Once we’ve secured a degree of material security, greater happiness comes not with more stuff but with social connection, a sense of personal autonomy and efficacy, the recognition/affirmation of peers, and a larger purpose beyond self-interest. For all our riches, too many Americans cannot satisfy those needs, making us, in Elizabeth Kolbert’s memorable phrase, “a nation of joyless lottery winners.”

What if we oriented public policy toward investing in and restoring our depleted social capital? In the U.S., we have been trained by decades of laissez-faire agitprop to think of government targeting happiness as vaguely Orwellian. There’s the public sphere and the private sphere; happiness lives in the private sphere, and it’s none of the government’s business.

But the fact is that every decision made in public life, from the local PTA up to the Oval Office, has some effect on our physical and social environments, and thus some effect on our well-being. If it is possible to measure such effects well and fairly (and I should emphasize that that remains to be seen), wouldn’t we be better off doing so? Why not track those effects in a transparent way so the public can assess the trade-offs they’re asked to make?

There’s lots of buzz right now around the idea of alternative indicators that incorporate well-being. Everyone cites Bhutan’s measure of “Gross National Happiness,” but fitful efforts are underway in the West as well. The U.K. Office for National Statistics started asking happiness-related questions on its surveys this year. In 2008, French president Nicholas Sarkozy created a “Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress” headed by Joe Stiglitz and Amartya Sen. Their report [PDF], released in 2009, stresses well-being over GDP.

In the U.S., Gallup-Healthways has developed a “Well-Being Index” to measure America’s “mood.” Among other things, it produces a ranking of American cities by overall wellbeing. (Happiest? Boulder, Colo. Least happy? The town that coal built: Huntington, W.Va.) It also offers specific services to city and government leaders if they want targeted happiness info. As John Tierney writes in the first of two fascinating stories on the subject, Somerville, Mass., has just become the first U.S. city to put happiness-related questions on its census forms.

So things are happening! And there’s a ton of research going on around happiness right now. I won’t pretend to have consumed more than a tiny bit of it. A nice, compact introduction can be found in Nic Marks’ The Happiness Manifesto. For a longer treatment, see Martin Seligman’s new book Flourish. For article-length intros, see researcher Carol Graham and Elizabeth Kolbert. (Leave other good links in comments.)

What would public policy devoted to social capital look like? Economist Tim Jackson has some interesting thoughts along these lines:

I expect I’ll be writing more on this subject over time. For now, though, you might be wondering: What does it have to do with great places?

The answer is simple: great places help people connect socially, get more physically active, and find meaningful work. In his new book — Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life — Richard Florida discusses his massive Place and Happiness Survey, done with Gallup, which included some 27,000 people across the U.S. What it discovered is that place (where) is just important to happiness as personal relationships (who) and work (what) — and of course place is tightly interwoven with both. He says:

The place we choose to live affects every aspect of our being. It can determine the income we earn, the people we meet, the friends we make, the partners we choose, and the options available to our children and families. People are not equally happy everywhere, and some places do a better job of providing a high quality of life than others. Some places offer us more vibrant labor markets, better career prospects, higher real estate appreciation, and stronger investment and earnings opportunities. Some places offer more promising mating markets. Others are better environments for raising children.

Great places img.Place also affects how happy we are in other, less palpable ways. It can be an island of stability in a sea of uncertainty and risk. Jobs end. Relationships break up. Choosing the right place can be a hedge against life’s downsides. I hate to dwell on the negative, but you need to think about this. It’s always terrible to lose a job, even worse to suffer a breakup with a significant other. As bad as those are, however, they are substantially worse if you also happen to live somewhere with few options in the job market or the mating market. It’s exponentially easier to get back on your feet when your location has a vibrant economy with lots of jobs to choose from, or a lot of eligible single people in your age range to date.

What Florida’s talking about is social capital. Great places are rich with it; living in one is like having a minimum guaranteed social income. A great place serves as a safety net, as much a form of social insurance as Social Security or Medicare.

If it’s true that our well-being is heavily influenced by the places we live — and surely it is — then public policy focused on well-being is, by nature, going to be preoccupied with great places.


David Roberts is staff writer for Grist. You can follow his Twitter feed at