DemocracyU and the Happiness Initiative

By John de Graaf

It’s an honor to blog for DemocracyU and the American Commonwealth Partnership, another much-needed organization in the quest for engaged higher education.  In the past year, I’ve been delighted to work with The American Democracy Project and Inspire America to introduce faculty and students to The Happiness Initiative , a project launched to let communities and campuses alike ask deeper questions about where we wish to go as a nation, how we get there, and how to measure what we achieve.

Since I spoke about the Initiative at the ADP meeting in Orlando last June, interest in the project has already come from about a hundred colleges and universities throughout the United States.  From Western Washington University to Western Kentucky, from San Jose State to Middlebury College, students are taking the 12-minute “happiness survey” on our site (developed with the help of hundreds of faculty and student volunteer hours from San Francisco State University’s psychology department), thinking about their happiness in much broader terms than money, and beginning to engage with their communities to measure and improve wellbeing.

With guidance from campus civic engagement director Don Mowry and several other faculty members, students at the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire are working with their city government, chamber of commerce, public library, local non-profits and other groups to conduct a community-wide happiness initiative.  They will be taking the survey to underserved populations and are conducting a random sampling of the Eau Claire population and of their fellow students.

The Happiness Initiative—measuring wellbeing in ten “domains” of life—economic satisfaction and security; mental health; physical health; time balance; access to education, arts and culture; social connection and community participation; work satisfaction; confidence in government; environment and quality of place—offers an opportunity for broad inter-disciplinary learning and civic engagement.

Many colleges will be joining with The Happiness Initiative to celebrate “Pursuit of Happiness Day” on April 13, 2012—Thomas Jefferson’s birthday.  Dr. David Gould of the University of Iowa is collecting materials for colleges to use in a possible national happiness teach-in that day.

I am reminded that January 11, 2012 marks the hundredth anniversary of one of the most significant acts of civic engagement in American history.  On that date in 1912, thousands of workers, most of them women and most of them immigrants, left the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts, to march in its snowy streets for better pay and shorter working hours.  Singing as they faced bayonets, imprisonment and physical violence for two months, they won America’s sympathy and their demands.

Historians have come to refer to the event as “The Bread and Roses strike,” because observers remarked that a few young women in the Lawrence textile strike carried a banner which read: WE WANT BREAD, AND ROSES TOO.

The bread symbolized higher wages—money, stuff, as we use the term colloquially today.  But the roses represented shorter working hours—time to smell the roses, or as the beautiful song about the strike, “Bread and Roses” (there are many versions on You Tube) puts it, time for “art and love and beauty their drudging spirits never knew.”  The roses symbolized all those non-material things that go beyond Gross Domestic Product as measures of the good life, the non-material things which The Happiness Initiative calls attention to.

In the years after World War Two, as America became the world’s richest consumer society, the roses were left to wilt.  We came to believe we could live on “bread” alone and measure our success by economic power alone.  In the past generation, the percentage of students whose after-college goal was to “make a lot of money” rather than find work that serves others has doubled.

But The American Commonwealth Partnership and The Happiness Initiative, drawing from the wellsprings of our history and our hopes for greater justice, sustainability and quality of life, can nurture the gardeners who will water our roses once again.

For more information about doing a happiness initiative on your campus, email Andrew Cozin:

John de Graaf is a documentary filmmaker, and producer of fifteen prime time national PBS documentaries.  He is the co-author of Affluenza: the all-consuming epidemic and What’s the economy for, anyway? John is also the Executive Director of Take Back Your Time and the Outreach Director of The Happiness Initiative.  He has taught at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

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