Thursday, March 18, 2010

Sustaining Happiness

The recent national, as-objective-as-they-could-probably-get survey of happiness wasn't good reading for New Yorkers. Downright depressing, actually. The list of happiest states, originally published in Science in December 2009, has New York dead last. Louisiana, Hawaii, and Florida apparently have the happiest folks, despite, in order, hurricane devastation, expensive gas, and crazy politics/spring break/girls gone wild/bad traffic/alligators/etc.

First off, a quick defense of Central Upstate New York (yes, maybe our downstate friends were skewing the survey!) from the perspective of a British native who moved to Syracuse from West Lafayette, IN, where, apart from Purdue University, they ain't nothing but corn, soy, humid summers, and cold winters.

My wife and I certainly were happy to move to an area where outdoor recreation is second to none—fishing, kayaking, hiking, skiing, sledding—and some of the world's greatest cities are a car ride away. Yes, on this bright spring day (after a pretty hard winter, no question), I'd say I was pretty happy. Maybe not Louisiana happy (?!) but surely up there with Wyoming (#13), North Dakota (#25), or Kansas (#32).

Second, the objectivity of a survey such as this has to be questioned. Even the word "happiness" is pretty difficult to define. For instance, "pursuit of happiness" in the Constitution actually means something like "pursuit of things that make a life comfortable and prosperous" not necessarily "pursuit of an inane grin and beer hats."

Looked at with the Constitutional happiness in mind, the list of What Makes Us Happy makes a lot of sense. It was also interesting to view the list with sustainability in mind. Some of the criteria, as my gloss below attempts to make clear, address key points and/or goals of sustainability, healthy communities, smart growth, and environmentalism ...
  • Commuting time less than 20 minutes (that is, smartly grown cities and no urban sprawl)
  • Low rate of violent crime
  • Good air quality (inside and out, I hope!)
  • Low student/teacher ratios
  • Low tax rates (this criterion begins a bit of a rough patch in the list for Syracuse!!)
  • Less than 35 inches of rain annually
  • Temperate climate
  • 59% days of sunshine
  • Access to coastal or inland water (that is, clean and abundant water sources)
  • State and national parks (green, natural spaces—and I would hope this extends to green spaces within cities)
  • Environmental regulations (need I say more!)
—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

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