If You’re Happy and You Know It…

“What does happiness have to do with transportation?” you may ask. I will tell you but first bear with me for a description of a new paradigm for public policy outlined by London School of Economics professor in his new book entitled “Happiness.”

It may be hard to believe that there was a time when cost effectiveness and efficiency were not the underpinning and often smothering values in public policy debates. The radicals of the American and French Revolutions as well as town fathers and mothers throughout the world wouldn’t recognize these economic terms. They spoke in high flown language about “pursuit of happiness” and “self evident truths” or in more homely words of common good and taking care of each other. What these policy paradigms rested on was a shared value system–that community or public actions and investments derived from and were used to respond to conditions and trends affecting the well-being of citizens.

Their answer to the question of whether people would benefit, or be better off, as the result of communal action was based on whether people would consider themselves happier or more satisfied because of the public action.

Under the influence of the dismal science, economics, asking whether people would be happier as a result of a policy change, tax levy or project has disappeared from conversation. Even considered weird and immeasurable.

While cost benefit analysis offers reassuringly precise numbers, does measuring results solely in financial terms really lead to better policy making? If the aggregate income level of a country or city rises, are all its people necessarily better off? If the purpose of government is to meet the needs and desires of its citizens, shouldn’t we be asking them what makes them happy?

International studies on this subject show surprisingly high similarities among people worldwide as to what they care about and what makes them happy. Ranked from high to low, time with friends and family comes first, followed by economic security, meaningful work and health. Countries with extensive social welfare support and shorter workweeks have the happiest citizens (Scandinavia, Switzerland, etc) while countries with less social welfare and longer work weeks have less happy citizens, even if their incomes are much higher (US and UK). Layard lays out the development of new, statistically valid means of measuring the public’s levels of satisfaction that are surprisingly fine-grained and could be used to as guides for decision-making.

(This is a short summary of the thesis of the book. I recommend all policy wonks to read it for yourself.)

The implications for transportation planning (“finally,” you say) derive from the findings that what makes people happiest is time with friends and family and what makes them least happy is commuting (US study). In fact, what makes us happiest is sex, the most direct contact with another person, followed by being with friends and then by time with the family. Yet the survey respondents spent only 0.2 hours a day having sex while they spent 1.6 hours average doing what they disliked the most, commuting.

If we really want to meet the most basic of human values, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, to increase satisfaction with our lives, then we should be designing our cities and making transportation investments in order to:

  • reduce the need to commute to work,
  • make those commutes as sociable as possible (mass transit and walkable streets increase our chance to interact with people: SOV’s are inherently isolating), and
  • give people more time in their day to do the things that make them happiest, which is spending time with family and friends.

We already know that these strategies help reduce travel and put more money in our pockets thereby addressing another major factor in happiness (economic security), “Happiness” argues that we should bring the discussion back to values and what furthers the public good as experienced by people in their lives and not rely on precise but not so meaningful economic indicators as measures of successful public policy.

(Northwest Environment Watch follows this issue as part of their obsession with measuring what counts. Intriguing posts on this blog.)

11 responses to “If You’re Happy and You Know It…”

  1. If government really wants to get the “discussion back to values and what furthers the public good” that is great but I think that there are already indicators out there are not economic that show a lot about the “needs and desire of its citizens”. The declining population of children in the City of Portland is one example. This hit me personally when friends that have been residents of Portland for 19 years, bike/mass transit commuters, left for Vancouver because they wanted good schools for their children, even though they still work in Oregon. No transportation investment or innovative city design will change the desire for a good education for their children. They are willing to spend more time commuting, more money on cars and pay Oregon income tax, even more time away from their family/friends. I question if even some of the contemplated transportation improvements such as the Columbia Crossing will further encourage/subsidize this kind of cross river exodus. What makes me happy is having a diverse community that includes families and children. I guess I think we need to be prepared that when we start asking people what makes them happy, the answer may require us to look beyond transportation to further the public good.

  2. Shelly,

    given the limits of this blog, I felt I had to keep my comments to the import of this research to the world of transportation. Obviously, if society cared about the happiness of its citizens it wouldn’t limit its actions to building bike paths and making streets safe for children! Indeed, Mr. Layard calls for strengthening the social safety net (guaranteed health care, housing, support for the mentally ill) as well as less time spent working.

    He points out that European citizens (with the exception of Great Britain) are much more satisfied with their lives, working about 400 hours less a year, secure in the knowledge that if they get sick or laid off they won’t lose their homes or be denied health care–and they accept that they must pay higher taxes in order to have that piece of mind. Of course, the US and Britain spend a much greater share of their incomes on war.

    I would like to ask Senator Gordon Smith if he really thinks Americans will be happier and feel more secure now that he supported cutting $50Billion from just the social safety net that Europeans treasure while still supporting Bush’s $200Billion mis-adventure in Iraq–all on top of the “usual” 500Billion war budget.

    Finally, I have to take issue with your first statement about the role of “government.” Government is a meaningless term because “government” doesn’t exist independent of society. Using it in this way connotes a passivity which I reject. It is up to us citizens to demand that our resources are invested in ways that increase our happiness. Leaving the job to an anonymous “government” is exactly what has resulted in the misallocation of our country’s great wealth and the insecurity and unhappiness of our citizens.

    Get active and stay active! You have a right to be happy but you’ve got to fight for it. Or as Woody Guthrie said, “Take it easy, but take it!”

  3. Rex, I hate to say it but you almost seem cut from the same materialist-liberal cloth as Vera Katz. There has to be a spiritual component to happiness as well…elsewise we could go down the path of the Germans. IMHO academics frequently know very little about what makes people tick. Futhermore we have so many administrators, consultants, experts, instructors and other talking heads in this country that we can’t even keep the economy working without massive importation of labor. Somehow, this “creative class” that our planners are attracting are able to afford those new condos in the Pearl–the ones that are maintenance free. I wish I knew how they did it. Yeah, they must be creative!

  4. Well Rex if Trimet ran a bus to my place of employment at the hours I work I might be happy.
    In fact I have heard of a number of people who have lost jobs, or not been able to get to a job because of lack of transportation services in the Portland metro area. Maybe what we need is for you and others in government to look at the possibility of opening the transportation marketplace to other providers. It seems to have worked in Curitiba, Brazil and Metro has welcomed one or more speakers from that city, but Metro seems to ignore the message.

  5. Ron, I believe your statement of “we could go down the path of the Germans” is very vague. I would suppose your trying to equal Rex and Vera to Germany in the 1930s (?).

    If so, you have totally lost me since the spiritual backbone of the National Socialist Party was “Party First” to the point that Christians went along with the Party ideals without questioning the results and the leader is infalliable. Currently, the only party in the USA that fits that description is the Republican Party and Vera Katz isn’t one of those types, last time I checked.


  6. Ron, I frankly can’t comprehend what points you are trying to make. Your comments seem to be more about name-calling than discussion of the ideas I presented in this blog.

    I do recommend that you read this book. Happiness is all about how we feel about ourselves and the world, and the book actually rejects the materialist viewpoint that “more” is “better”. US incomes have grown considerably in the last 50 years but satisfaction has not. To me that is directly addressing the “spiritual” issue, and the fact is, we are in a spiritual deficit.

    Of course, people can’t feel happy if they are insecure, hence the role of community action to reduce the threats to our lives of hunger, lack of shelter, and disease. Once these basics are in place, being able to spend time with family and friends is what the research finds most satisfying to people.

  7. Puhleez, Rex and Ray! But if you need a little further info I shall provide it: Since I am always searching for new ideas, such as at Powell’s, I remember running across a politically neutral collection of essays contrasting the US with Europe. One essay on the European mindset was titled “Materialism Perfected” and contained some examples of what mattered most in the European psyche and referred extensively to Germans. Since I have spent a total of twelve weeks traveling through Europe I don’t consider myself grossly misinformed. However, many German youth have now gone on some form of spiritual quest, sensing the depravity of their old society.

    AS far as my personal experience with one aspect of “liberalism” i.e. over twenty five years in a craft union within the AFL-CIO, it seems to be a given that smoking or drinking yourself to death, regularly cheating the government of taxes, abusing women and generally being incompetent are OK so long as you belong to the correct political party. Neither will I forgive the “right,” as you may surmise, since white collar crime rages further out of control whenever they are in office.

    Many in the “conservative” movement give generously to humanitarian causes based here in the Northwest: Mercy Corps, Northwest Medical Teams, World Vision, etc. That makes me happy! For my part, I participate with Gorbachev’s State of the World Forum and have plans for the 2006 Urban Forum In BC. But I know that there is more than merely solving the technical issues of urban life…now I will bow out to let others post.

  8. Last week I had to do “taxi service” for some family members…City driving is not happy making for me. No need to compare life here with Europe where I have lived, I just take my own pulse.
    I need my daily bike ride come rain or shine, fog or …no I don’t ride on ice. The “hellos” and nods of recognition that come along the way are little threads that bind us together. Not to mention the wind in the face, air in the lungs….you get my drift.
    Then, once I get on the Swan Island Express, then its usually a friendly greeting from our regular driver and lively chat with fellow riders for the 10 minutes to Swan Island. Again…a little bit a community in a big anonymous world.
    With city driving, by contrast, I am too quick to communicate by horn or finger. Usually once we are out in the country and the pavement ends, then its the index finger up off the steering wheel to passing rigs and that feels good.
    Overall on the transportation side, we are doing pretty well here….TriMet’s ridership is 12th in the nation (its market is 29th!), bikes are just obvious for lots of trips, there is no real freight congestion on Swan Island anymore…a potential model for I-5 and elsewhere.
    Check out Chris Coleman’s post on Sam Adam’s blog…our economic future rides on creativity and that means Talent. We continue to dis-invest in education at our peril. Let’s take the billion or so dollars that a new Columbia River crossing might cost and put that into 1000 endowed chairs in the regions’ colleges and universities.

  9. “If we really want to meet the most basic of human values, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence,”

    Um. Could you point out, just where in the Declaration of Independence it says anything about government bureaucrats designing our lives for us, Rex? I must have missed that important part where folks like you get to decide to cram us all into rabbit hutches. And since most people change addresses several times during their lives, I guess I also missed the part in the Declaration that says bureaucrats get to tell us to move our furniture by bus or MAX, rather than over the ROADS that we pay taxes to have BUILT and MAINTAINED.

    You are so out of touch with reality that it’s downright scary.

  10. Jay,

    Well, its called a democracy and I ran for election and got elected (by 73% of the vote last time). If you have different ideas and would like to help lead, join in the fun and good luck.

    I’m not sure where you got the rabbit hutch and moving by Max out of a discussion of the desire of people to spend more time with their families. Again, the point of this blog is to have a dialogue not a diatribe. Please add to the discussion with ideas and facts, not sarcasm and character assasination.

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