Becky Morton finds out about Bristol-based charity, Happy City,
What is the best way to measure the success of a society? Economic development? Employment rates? Standard of education? Bristol-based charity, Happy City, argues that above all policy-makers should focus on happiness.
Founded by Mike and Liz Zeildler, in 2010, the organisation has formulated a ‘Happy City Index’, the world’s first city-wide measure of happiness and wellbeing. The Index aims to use alternate measures to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the traditional model used by statisticians and policy makers, arguing that economic growth ‘has become the end in itself’, to the detriment of personal happiness, the environment, our health and our communities.
In a consumer age, the Index challenges the idea that happiness comes from the mere accumulation of material possessions, arguing that human relationships, supportive and active communities and the long-term quality of our environment are more important. The 2015 pilot study in Bristol found that factors such as close personal relationships, social interactions and community belonging have the greatest positive impact on wellbeing, whilst the positive impact of a medium or high income on overall wellbeing is negligible.
Crucially Happy City sees happiness as interdependent; an individual’s happiness is limited if their community is discontented and disengaged. For example, their research shows that socially isolated individuals are more likely to suffer from mental and physical health problems. Alongside traditional ‘drivers’ of well-being such as economy, education, health, culture and environment, the researchers at Happy City have also identified the need for a sense of belonging, meaning and purpose.
There has been a growing interest in alternative measures of progress at a national and international level. In 2010, the UN published its first ‘World Happiness Report’, which ranks 156 countries according to the ‘wellbeing’ of their citizens. This year’s rankings were topped by Finland, with the US ranked just 13th despite having the highest GDP of any country in the world. In 2010 the UK launched a National Wellbeing Programme which aimed to ‘start measuring our progress as a country, not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving’.
Despite this growing interest at a national and international level, Happy City noted there was little action at a community and city scale. In 2015 they piloted a prototype of the Index in Bristol in partnership with Bristol City Council, the University of Bristol and a number of community organisations. On 26 April, the Index will be launched on a city-wide scale. The city seems fertile ground for the project to grow given Bristol’s history of challenging the status quo and its strong emphasis on community action. As the former European Green Capital, the city also has a recognised awareness of the importance of sustainability.
The Index aims to engage individuals by enabling them to measure their own well-being and find simple and low-cost ways to make improvements, through an online survey. As well as providing users with a comprehensive measure of their well-being, the survey also provides feedback and advice. Through this method the Index aims to bring benefits at all levels. Individuals will learn how to boost their own wellbeing, whilst communities and organisations can use the survey to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of their work. For policy-makers, the data can be used to understand how best to promote wellbeing by highlighting areas which have a positive effect and where resources should be focused.
‘What really excites me about the Happy City Index project is that it aims to support change at three different levels,’ explains co-founder Liz Zeilder. ‘For me, the triple win-win-win is worth the many years of work from our small team, volunteers and supporters across Bristol and well beyond.’
The survey can also be used by community organisations, workplaces and other bodies such as schools, hospitals and universities, as tailored modules can be added to measure specific factors. On 18 April Happy City is launching its Happy University Index with the University of Bristol, coinciding with the Students’ Union’s Mind Your Head Month. The ‘Happiness Pulse’ is an online survey designed to help the University understand and support student wellbeing as well as giving feedback to students on how to improve their own wellbeing. The data will be used by the University to identify trends and inform wellbeing related activities. The Happy University Index is part of the wider Happy City Index which is launching on 26 April and is also open to students.
The Index seems to be particularly pertinent for the University of Bristol which consistently ranks poorly for student satisfaction. Last year Bristol came just 106th out of 160 universities in the National Student Survey, which asks final-year undergraduates to rate teaching, feedback, academic support, resources and personal development as well as overall satisfaction. The Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey recently ranked the University 47th out of 117 universities, with the lowest score being for ‘Good Community Atmosphere’. The Index’s emphasis on a sense of belonging and engagement in a community as facilitating wellbeing could shed light on ways to improve the University of Bristol’s perceived lack of ‘community spirit’.
At university it is easy to get overwhelmed by workload and the pressure to succeed, to the detriment of personal happiness. Mental health is a growing problem amongst students and resources are stretched. University counselling services are facing an annual rise in demand of around 10% and students can wait months for one-to-one counselling. The survey data could be used to identify what factors are affecting student well-being, informing the policy decisions of universities to improve the support available to students. The Index also provides feedback to participants to help understand their own wellbeing and take steps to improve their happiness. Such feedback could facilitate self-care and prevent so many students from needing to access mental health services.
The interactive nature of the survey distinguishes it from other initiatives such as the National Student Survey (NSS). Jack Enright, a student at the University of Bristol who is an intern at Happy City, highlights how ‘With the NSS, you just fill in their form and your answers disappear into the ether, never to be seen again. You don’t receive any feedback. The Index is very good at visualising your wellbeing for you, showing you aspects of your life that are contributing to your happiness and the areas that are taking away from it. The Index isn’t just a survey, it’s also a tool for addressing the problem it measures.’
Another short-coming of the NSS is that the survey is used by national newspapers compiling their university league tables. As such, some students completing the survey are reluctant to criticise the University as this could pull it down the league tables and damage the reputation of their degree.
By contrast, the Happy University Index will be less tied to national rankings, allowing students to freely express their opinions. It remains, however, an independent survey, and so questions would not be biased towards the university’s strengths.
In a world threatened by environmental devastation, where individuals feel increasingly disconnected and disillusioned, the idea that a successful society can be judged by its levels of consumption and economic development seems to be flawed. The Happy City initiative is taking a significant step to show that happiness cannot be built on solely on this basis. The project may have begun small but it has big ambitions, with plans to expand into other cities across the UK next year.
Yet Liz highlights how the central aims of the project remain focused on the individual: ‘If we can help individuals of all backgrounds and ages, to better understand their wellbeing, and feel more ability to influence their happiness and resilience, that is an incredible achievement. ‘
You can find more about Happy City on their website.
To take your Happiness Pulse click here.
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