Vermont puts happiness on its legislative agenda.
By Laura Musikanski, Executive Director, The Happiness Initiative
On Wednesday, April 9th the Vermont House of Representatives opened the 93rd Day of the session with happiness.
It all started with a walk.
Two years ago, my friends Linda Wheatley and Paula Francis decided to walk from Vermont to Washington DC. They wanted to hear people’s reflections about the idea that we all have an “inalienable right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.” They called it the Pursuit of Happiness Walk.
They walked from town to town, word spreading of their journey before them. In most towns they were received by a host who provided them food and shelter. Just as they came to the border of Vermont, they met Cynthia Martin. She offered them a place to stay in her inn. That evening they had a lively discussion about gross national happiness, the use of a gross national happiness index rather than just economic metrics and the work of GNHUSA.
It turns out Cynthia Martin is a House Representative in Vermont State Legislature. She was inspired by their conversation that summer, and she stayed inspired.
On Wednesday, Cynthia opened the session with the statement:
“(Measuring what matters) is important as we tend to ‘get what we measure,’ so it is critical that we are measuring the right things when we seek greater wellbeing and an ever-improving quality of life.”
She introduced Linda, Paula and my other friend from GNHUSA, Tom Barefoot.
It was not the first time members of the House of Representatives and Senate for Vermont had heard of gross national happiness and measuring what matters. On May 8, 2012, the Vermont Legislature had been the second state in the U.S. to pass the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) Bill, following Maryland.
GPI is an objective measure that starts with Gross Domestic Product (GDP), takes out the “bads” such as revenues from disasters, crimes and illness, adds in the “goods” not counted in GDP such as volunteering and caring for children or elders, and normalizes long-term infrastructure expenditures.
The difference between Vermont’s GPI bill and Maryland’s GPI bill is that Vermont includes a subjective indicator, allowing the state to get a real pulse on where people perceive themselves to be hurting or thriving.
When they passed the GPI bill, Linda told me, Vermont State Senator Anthony Pollina said, “Oh, this is my report card.” Last summer, the Gund Institute’s Eric Zencey presented the first GPI Progress Report. Last fall, GNHUSA, working with the University of Vermont’s Center for Rural Studies used the Happiness Initiative's Gross National Happiness Index to conduct a random sampling of Vermont.
On April 9th, Linda, Tom and Paula introduced the elected officials to the GHN results. You can see from the graph, Vermont is a pretty happy state to live in.
I asked Linda, Paula and Tom what their thoughts were about this milestone in their work. Paula said,
“They knew about the importance of happiness, and have respect for it. The giggle factor and questions about the word ‘happiness’ are gone.”
Linda’s excitement grew as she spoke:
“The next bill coming through is the Results Based Accountably (RBA) Bill. Some of the senators and representatives are seeing the connection with the GPI bill, the People’s Budget, which passed the same time as the GPI bill and states that the state budget be based on meeting basic human needs and rights, and the RBA bill.
“They can see that the RBA bill is the third piece of the puzzle. John Murrand from Brattleboro told me ‘if this is how we measured how well we are doing, we would not be dealing with all these problems.’ We still need to help them understand how other efforts, like the GMO and Sick Leave bills fit into happiness and wellbeing. We need to help them use GNH language in those bills so they can see how it is all connected.”
I could tell Linda was inspired by the synchronicity of it all, and with the idea of making that clearer.
Tom also was pleased.
“I think they want to understand how different communities in Vermont are doing, and we will see lots of community uses of the Gross National Happiness Index. This will help us understand differences, and also where we can best leverage resources for the better of all in Vermont.”
So what's next?
All three agreed: they wanted to keep in closer touch with the legislature and to send them special invitations to the 5th North American Gross National Happiness conference to be held at the end of May in Vermont. There they hope to set the stage for more deeply involving Vermont’s representatives in using happiness data and adopting happiness policy, and further the happiness movement across the U.S.