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Oregonian: How happy is Oregon? Governor joins PSU class that aims to find out
Author: Bill Graves, The Oregonian
Posted: April 17, 2012

Read full story from The Oregonian

The Declaration of Independence secures our unalienable right to pursue happiness, but should government also try to measure happiness?

Robert Costanza,  a professor in the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at Portland State University, is exploring that question and has caught the attention of Gov. John Kitzhaber.

The class will spend the coming weeks measuring what is called Oregon's Genuine Progress Indicator or GPI, an alternative to the traditional measure of economic prosperity, the Gross Domestic Product. The GPI not only measures economic, but also environmental and social indicators, 26 in all.

"There is pretty broad agreement that the GDP is not the way to go," said Costanza, just back from a United Nations summit on measuring happiness sponsored by the small Himalayan country of Bhutan, which actually measures its happiness with a gross national happiness survey.

The governor and first lady Cylvia Hayes  joined four other professors and 10 students in a small room recently for the first meeting of Costanza's course on measuring Oregon's well being. The unusual course, which Costanza taught once previously at the University of Vermont, is offered through PSU's environmental science and management program to students of various disciplines. Its problem-solving approach, common in medical schools, is similar to the capstone courses PSU has pioneered.

The professor and others argue the GDP measures only economic movement without revealing whether that activity hurts or benefits the environment and quality of life. Rapid urban sprawl, for example, might boost the GDP, but also damage farm or forest land and increase congestion and commuting time. It measures wealth, but not necessarily happiness.

"It was not designed as a measure of well-being," Costanza said.

Researchers have found in surveys that once people have basic food, shelter and security, additional wealth has little effect on their happiness, Costanza said.

The GPI, on the other hand, looks at a broad set of indicators such as the costs of: underemployment, air and water pollution, wetlands and forest cover change, commuting, lost leisure time and family changes.

While the nation's GDP has climbed over the last half century, its GPI leveled off around 1975, Costanza said. Maryland has tracked its GPI and shows it rising with GDP until 2008, when it flattened.

Overall, the United States appears to be one of the happiest places on earth.

 A World Happiness Report issued this month by the Earth Institute at Columbia University ranks the United States as 11th happiest of 156 countries. The U.S. scored a little over 7 on a scale of zero to 10, with 10 being the happiest. Denmark ranked number one with a score near 8; Togo in West Africa was the most unhappy with a score of 3.  

Kitzhaber, who stayed for Costanza's entire three-hour opening class, asked if there are ways to tie the GPI to policy and budget decisions. He's interested in finding ways to measure Oregon's progress as it adopts an outcome-based 10-year budget.

The Oregon Progress Board used to track headway on 90 indicators in seven areas including the economy, environment, education and public safety. But the Legislature stopped funding the board in 2009.

Hayes said she looked into Seattle's Happiness Initiative, which is based on Bhutan's index. But in today's economy, she said, "it seems like it would be a hard sell" in Oregon. Bhutan takes a long-term view of happiness, Costanza said, giving the word a meaning closer to well-being.

With results from its happiness index based on a 200-question survey, Bhutan has set goals to become the first country to produce only organic food and to remove more carbon from the air than it emits.

Oregon has a better shot at improving its happiness by trying to measure it, Costanza said.

"We can probably improve people's well being without spending more money," he said. "You don't have to spend money to have a good time."

Photo: Robert Costanza, a professor in the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at Portland State University, talks with Oregon first lady Cylvia Hayes during the first session of a graduate-level class that will spend the coming months measuring Oregon's well-being. Gov. John Kitzhaber and Hayes are interested in the project.