Happiness: There’s something about Northwest communities

Fairhaven is a popular district in Bellingham. Credit: Sue Frause/Crosscut Flickr pool

In the dog days of winter, it seems we have turned to deciding what makes us happy — as individuals, as communities and even as nations. So we have a plethora of rankings, polls, and surveys just this last week. Perhaps there are things in common, perhaps they are simply kind of fun to read and challenge.

In Seattle, Sustainable Seattle is currently running a survey to see how happy the natives are in these wet times. Seattle Times columnist Nicole Brodeur took the survey and discovered she was 73 percent satisfied with life, a bit ahead of the median score of 66 for early survey respondents. You can take the online survey as well.

In Bellingham, where I live, we have become accustomed in recent years to being on a lot of lists of “best places to (fill in the blank) . . . ” Just last week, we learned that Whatcom County ranks second of 363 metropolitan areas in the U.S. for vitality of independent retailers, one of the marks of a sustainable community.

Sustainability may be linked to happiness — that is, the more we in live a fulfilling life close to home, the happier we may be. Happiness includes more than economic well-being, although that is always a factor.

On the retailing front, IndieCity Index listed Bellingham only after Ocean City, N.J.; Medford, Oregon, was ranked third. In general, the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast were the regions with the highest rankings. The index is sponsored by the American Booksellers Association, with the professional work done by Civic Economics, an economic analysis and strategic planning consultancy with offices in Austin and Chicago. Similar studies have been done by Civic Economics since 2002.

The index is primarily based on retail sales of big-box stores; the lower the sales of these stores, the higher a city’s rating. Cities are then analyzed to find commonalities. In general, the larger a metro area the less it depends on big-box stores, with some notable exceptions (Bellingham and Medford, for instance). Higher-ranked metro areas also have higher educational attainments and more cultural offerings. There appears to be a link between areas of more conservative politics and big-box stores, although the survey doesn’t explore this aspect.

In the same week, Bellingham learned that it is one of ten “places to make you happy” in the West, in the February issue of Sunset. The magazine scattered its top towns around its readership region, listing only Bellingham in Washington and Portland in Oregon. Since no common criteria were used and the survey was not scientific, it can be chalked off to marketing, although Bellingham tourist promotions will doubtless take notice.

On a global scale was the announcement of a worldwide “prosperity index,” expanding beyond monetary measures to include social well-being, health, freedom of speech and religion, and tolerance of ethnic minorities. It is somewhat similar to studies conducted over the last two decades by various organizations attempting to define mental and social health as well as gross national products.

Like the two other surveys, this one carries ideological trappings; sponsors have attachments, no matter how well meaning their philanthropic work. Legatum Institute, described in a Forbes article as a “London-based nonpartisan think tank”, conducted this survey. The Legatum Institute has links to giant multinational financial firms and hedge funds. The survey uses standard social-science methodology, however, and is linked to Oxford Analytica, a respected research and consulting firm.

“Prosperity” in the case of this survey could be labeled “happiness” for the breadth of its measurements beyond economic standing. This business of measuring happiness may be traced to the King of Bhutan, who three decades ago called for a “Gross Happiness Measure” to replace the Gross National Product as a measuring stick of national well-being. 

The 2010 Prosperity Index lists only one large nation, the United States, among the top ten on the “prosperity” or happiness index, and we are tenth.

Wealth is certainly a factor of the ranking; all of the top ten are doing just fine in economic terms. In order of rank, they are: Norway, Denmark, Finland, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Canada, Switzerland, Netherlands, and the U.S. But these are also nations with the highest rankings in civil liberties, health, education, and governance. Nations at the bottom — Zimbabwe, Pakistan, and Central Africa Republic — are not only poor, they also lag on all the social indicators.

Nations ranked in the second ten include Japan and the major nations of Europe; all but five of the 20 nations with poorest rankings are in Africa. China, for all its flexing economic power, ranks only 68th in well-being and India is 88th of the 110 nations.

Studies that purport to rank livability and well-being on one scale or another have their flaws but they also have commonalities that are interesting.

Almost without exception, areas with high rankings on any of these scales are areas that stress education, civil liberties, and freedom. People have access to their governments and also have economic choices. All of the top ten have moderately socialistic economies but with strong entrepreneurial incentives.

The Legatum survey values entrepreneurship, also valued in the IndieCity index of independent businesses. The IndieCity Index found high correlations between support for local businesses and a city’s density (allowing for more niche stores), above-average housing costs, and higher education. The global survey showed an almost exact correlation between education and the overall ranking of prosperity or well-being. Nearly every study of attractive cities or retirement spots is weighted toward university communities.

Density may help American independent businesses, but it does not seem to help nations; in fact the well-being of nations that are able to keep their population in check is well above that of nations with rapidly growing populations and limited space and economic opportunities. Of the top ten in the Legatum index, all have stable populations and several have large open spaces that allow an escape from density if not for urban populations.

It has always seemed to me that a balance between urban amenities and open space is critical to well-being and locations in this country (including much of the Pacific Northwest); that balance will continue to attract people who have the education and skills to select their living space. Most of the communities on the IndieIndex of locally owned small businesses are attractive for other reasons, and support for local owners is perhaps a natural outcome of people who want choice and freedom from big marketing and a uniform culture.

As we become more global, the basic values that these surveys of well-being measure increasingly also measure a global citizenship of sorts. Those of us who live in communities that value quality of life are more apt to feel a kinship with those nations that share our values, perhaps even more than we feel kinship with communities in our own nation with values at odds with our own. It will be an increasing phenomenon of this new century.

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