Is Tacoma a happy place to live?

Tacomans want to help the community measure and improve happiness

By Paul Schrag on January 17, 2013

Talking to Chiara Wood and Prof. Kate Stirling, you get the idea they know something you don't. It has something to do with the Happiness Initiative Project, which they are still kind of working out. Right now it involves a survey, further organization, probably some college interns. They have a website, and they'll be making an appearance at Shift Happens on Jan. 28 at the Tacoma Convention Center.

In the meantime, they both smile a lot. They laugh a lot. Stirling teaches Macroeconomics Theory at the University of Puget Sound. Not once does Stirling remind me of any of my economic professors. Her eyes are too bright. Her skin looks healthy. And she's laidback in a way that most people aren't. Wood - co-owner of The Turning Point Integrated Therapies - is kind of a marvel, a freak of nature. She tells me how old she is, and I still don't believe her by about half. Her enthusiasm for most of what she talks about is soothing and energizing at the same time.  They sure aren't a couple of bliss ninnies babbling about Samadhi or how we all need to love one another. Not yet anyway.

No. In the end, the Happiness Initiative Project is about economics, and measuring the success of economic models based on one fundamental criterion - the happiness of the people who live within them.

First step, locally, is a survey, which you'll find at The survey takes three or four minutes if you're not overly pensive about it. It measures all sorts of things - physical health, work-time balance, social connections, education, access to the arts and culture, environmental quality, democratic governance, and ... material comfort and wealth. When all the data is sifted, the survey will provide a window into the overall happiness of the community. If the Happiness ladies can get a nice, diverse, representative sample, the results of the survey could prove useful in making public policy recommendations, formulating goals for the community, and redefining how we measure economic success. Stirling, meanwhile, has got UPS to sign off on a class that explores the economics of happiness. Some local agencies and organizations have expressed interest in helping continue to measure standards of happiness in Tacoma once a system has been developed.

At the very least, we'll have begun a real conversation about the failure of our current economic model to make you happy.

"I think we're finally waking up to the fact that a traditional capitalist system doesn't promote well-being," Stirling says. "We can't have a traditional capitalist model and be happy."

Strangely, college professors make wild statements like that all the time, and are doing so in larger numbers as the years roll on. In case you hadn't noticed, capitalism is under scrutiny. Even by standard economic measures - productivity, prosperity, growth - capitalism appears to be failing, say critics. This most recent economic crisis is just the latest in a series of inevitable crises to be faced if we continue to bow to the will of the so-called free market, they say. The experiment - begun when Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776 - has failed. Game over. Depressing, right?

Not really.

In fact, redefining and reinventing how we measure prosperity is likely our best path to happiness, say a growing number of economists, professors and world leaders. Stirling notes that the standard, national measure of prosperity - the Gross Domestic Product - really only measures one thing - economic output. That's not a very good way to measure a nation's well-being, she adds.

Nobel laureate and former World Bank economist Joseph E. Stiglitz agrees with Stirling.

"GDP doesn't take into account sustainability, distribution or well-being. Chasing GDP growth results in lower living standards. Better indicators are needed to capture well-being and sustainability," Stiglitz recently told the International Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress.

Pair that notion with a statement that Stirling drops during our conversation - what gets measured gets managed. If your only measure of prosperity is a nice profit curve, that's what will get your attention and energy. If you only measure pure economic indicators, the rest of the human gets left out. If your local, state or national government emphasizes economics in policy making, the rest of the community gets left out.

"GDP is perverse," says Stirling.

Before they re-imagine capitalism, however, Wood would be very happy to see a swell of community support for the effort.

For Wood, it has to be about the whole human, the whole community needs to be brought back into focus.

"We lose so many things when we're consumed with consumption," says Wood, who practices a family of healing disciplines from her office on Sixth Avenue. "We lose too much. We lose our connections. Right now, nothing else is working. We want to share a new way of looking at things and a new way of measuring what matters."

LINK: Take the Happiness Initiative survey