top of page

Measuring Sustainable Happiness: Seattle Leads the Way with Happiness Initiative

Is it possible to measure happiness? The government of Bhutan has been doing it for years with the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, developed by the Centre for Bhutan Studies. Bhutan is often noted for being one of the happiest countries in the world, its high happiness index attributed to a culture rich in spiritual practices and strong family and social ties.

The United States places an emphasis on the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of our success as a nation, economic indicators generally being considered a measure of happiness in the developed world. But while the GDP gauges our economic achievements, does that necessarily translate into happiness and well-being? Stress and overwork have an enormous impact on mental and physical health, for instance, but are not part of the equation.


If we can take away something positive from the great recession, it is that we received a collective wake-up call. Our penchant for over-scheduling our lives and the endless pursuit of consumer goods most assuredly did not lead to increased feelings of happiness.

"Studies show that once our basic needs are met, extra income does not increase our well-being," said Dr. Patrick Rottinghaus, Associate Professor and Director, Career Development and Resource Clinic Department of Psychology, Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

The economic downturn forced more families to tone down the drive for material possessions, spend more time together, and have a more balanced and happier lifestyle. But have we really learned our lesson... or will a more robust economy send us back to our old familiar ways?

We posed that question to Dr. Rottinghaus:

"It is difficult to predict how the recession will affect us over time. The competitive nature of the 21st century economy will require people to work harder and smarter. This requires us to use technology and invest long hours in our careers. Moreover, the rising presence of smartphones and tablet computers will place greater pressure on people's work-life balance. So my guess is that many people will continue to drive full speed ahead and not embrace the wisdom gained from these temporary simpler times. Of course, it is our choice to decide whether or not to let our lives become so insanely busy. We all could benefit from turning off our devices and going for a walk in the woods from time to time!"


Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D., tackled the subject of measuring happiness in his 2002 book, Authentic Happiness, in which he says that although we each come into this world with a general fixed range of happiness, it is within our power to achieve enduring happiness and life satisfaction.

Dr. Seligman writes:

"What is the good life? In my view, you can find it by following a startlingly simple path. The 'pleasant life' might be had by drinking champagne and driving a Porsche, but not the good life. Rather, the good life is using your signature strengths every day to produce authentic happiness and abundant gratification. This is something you can learn to do in each of the main realms of your life: work, love, and raising children."
"The meaningful life adds one more component: using these same strengths to forward knowledge, power, or goodness."


The baby boomer generation embraced sweeping social transformation and changed individual expectations for happiness and fulfillment. "Having it all" suddenly seemed possible, but that illusive "all" can come with a heavy price tag.

"Today's college students observed their parents struggle with work-family balance. Therefore, they expect this to be a natural challenge of living in this era. Perhaps they can be more strategic in terms of how they choose to manage their schedules," says Rottinghaus. "Unlike the previous generation, they have more models of women and men effectively managing their work and personal lives, often in ways that defy traditional gender roles."


Sustainable Seattle, a non-profit organization promoting sustainability in the Central Puget Sound area, believes that happiness can be measured... and those measurements can be used to improve lives.

Following the model developed in Bhutan and now being used in Brazil and Canada, Sustainable Seattle and The Seattle Area Happiness Initiative, along with Take Back Your Time and The Compassionate Action Network, recently launched a survey designed to measure happiness in the Seattle region.

Basic domains of happiness are identified by researchers as:

  • psychological well-being;

  • physical health;

  • time or work-life balance;

  • social connection and community vitality;

  • education;

  • access to arts, culture and recreation;

  • environmental quality and access to nature;

  • good governance;

  • material well-being.

After completing the survey, participants are provided with a well-being score that can be compared (anonymously) to others in the area who have completed the survey. The information collected can be used to foster innovation in communities and in business that will improve life in the area and to promote a sustainable future.


Governments around the world and at all levels are studying how policies in areas beyond economics affect the overall well-being of their citizens. According to Rottinghaus, "University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Psychology Professor Ed Diener and other scholars have conducted numerous studies to demonstrate how the lives of happy people and societies are much stronger than those of sadder people."

Seattle is on track to become the model for other U.S. cities, but should the U.S. government have a role in keeping its population happy?

Rottinghaus believes it should.

"We have an obligation to ourselves, and more importantly, to the next generation to implement policies and engage in life enhancing strategies that yield greater happiness.... Such a quest is not easy or quickly attained; therefore, we must support policies that invest in future generations and not be too concerned about immediate results that are so often demanded by people. We need a moment to chill out and then carve out resources of time and money to build a structure for achieving happiness."

Sources: Patrick J. Rottinghaus, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Director, Career Development and Resource Clinic Department of Psychology, Southern Illinois University Carbondale; Authentic Happiness, Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D;;

Ann Pietrangelo is a freelance writer covering a wide range of issues, most notably multiple sclerosis patient advocacy, health care policy, and healthy living.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page