GROTON -- Members of the town's Sustainability Commission decided to move forward with what is called a "happiness initiative," a new movement to discover what makes people happy and to eliminate those impediments that keep them from being so.
"I feel that this is an important thing for us to do," said Chairman Michael Roberts, who brought the issue before the commission at its meeting of Jan. 22. "But it's going to be real hard."
After hearing about the initiative, Roberts said he traveled to Seattle, Washington, where the growing international movement has had its start, and became certified to pursue initiatives on his own.
Roberts told fellow commissioners that he decided the best place to start would be a small town such as Groton, in order to work out the bugs in the process before trying it on larger communities.
Robert became interested in the happiness initiative as a way to help people better understand the overall goals of the Sustainability Commission -- to help the town "adopt practices that support and balance the social, economic and environmental aspects" of the community.
Problems with how some residents were interpreting the mission of the Sustainability Commission surfaced at a recent town meeting, when distrust as to its ultimate motives became apparent.
The discovery led commissioners to begin thinking of ways to alter the public's perception of their goals, including the use of a new movement in sustainability circles that emphasized "positive psychology," which seeks to bring a human dimension into the mix as opposed to approaching the issue largely with raw data.
To that end, a new effort at emphasizing the human dimension to the environmental movement was developed with something called a "happiness index," a measure on how people feel about adapting to changes needed to improve the environment.
Having first brought up the subject at an earlier meeting, Roberts returned on Jan. 22 with a PowerPoint presentation giving more details about the happiness initiative, including the 10 areas that it seeks to measure through surveys and data mining, including how people feel about material well being, environment, government, health, how they spend their time, culture, work experience and education.
The results of a survey of the 10 areas would be compiled in a "happiness report card," whose data can then be used by the community to target areas of low "gross national happiness" levels rather than the traditional gross domestic product measure of societal improvement.
After areas that need improvement have been identified, networking among motivated individuals and groups can undertake "happiness projects" and bring an organized approach to solving problems of poverty, education and, of course, the environment.
"The mission of the happiness initiative," states the founding document, "is to work towards a just, healthy and resilient society where all people have equal opportunity to pursue happiness."
According to Roberts, the happiness initiative is so new that should Groton go with it, the town would be one of only a handful of communities around the country to do so.
"It's all targeted at sustainability," concluded Roberts, bringing the subject back to the commission's original goal. "But it's going to grow beyond the commission, I hope."
Citing the Seattle example, Roberts said that ideally, every department and board in town government would have its sustainability representative versed in the happiness initiative, helping to keep the focus of municipal activity targeted on elements that have been identified in the happiness index as those keeping residents from being happy.
Roberts said although it would be the role of local government to oversee the movement, eventually private groups would step in to continue the initiative.
Not without some reservations that the initiative might divert the commission from its primary mission, members agreed to hold a work session dedicated completely to discussing the initiative and how to proceed if it was decided to move forward with it.
Already, said Roberts, Town Manager Mark Haddad had expressed interest in the project, but there was work to be done in seeking more information about the initiative first, including how it conformed to the town's master plan. After that, if the commission chose to move forward, a work plan would be drawn up and the whole proposal brought before selectmen for its support.