Future Tense

Designing for Happiness: The Ultimate Sustainability Solution?

Happiness and sustainability—a great combination.

Photo by littleny/Shutterstock.com

We’ve all been there before—took a wrong turn and ended up in a “scary” neighborhood. Quickly now, roll up the windows, lock the doors—one-fourth inch of glass will save our lives. What causes us to react this way? Humans are incredibly in tune with their surroundings, subconsciously analyzing environmental factors that drive mental and physical responses—it is the basis for our survival. Our favorite restaurant might evoke a sense of relaxation and familiarity, while a busy elevator makes us feel cramped, anxious, and insecure. Neighborhoods incite similar responses, causing our bodies to prepare for battle or for peace. Some of us are able to live in neighborhoods that make us feel safe, secure, and at home. Others aren’t as fortunate, often a result of disinvestment and poor planning policies. Consider, for a moment, how your neighborhood makes you feel. Now, take it a step further: How happy does your neighborhood make you feel? Happiness is a common value we all strive for and deserve the opportunity to pursue—each and every one of us.


How often do you contemplate your happiness and the levels to which it is affected by your neighborhood? Never? Join the club—most lack a sense of connection between happiness and the neighborhood. However, even as sustainability transcends its earlier buzzword status, happiness is missing from the conversation. Sustainability is literally about the survival of the human race—why wouldn’t we want that survival to equal a happy life? A shortsighted lens will no longer work and we are foolish to think so. I suggest that a happy neighborhood might just be a sustainable neighborhood, and vice versa.

Research is now connecting the dots between sustainability and happiness and the results are promising. In a recent study published in the journal Environment, Development and Sustainability, researchers found that cities with strong sustainable development practices and policies self-report higher levels of happiness. In fact, sustainable practices, such as community gardens, green spaces, green homes, and sustainable transportation, have all been shown to increase happiness. Sustainable design can also enhance and strengthen social networks—and the importance of that can’t be overstated. In Charles Montgomery’s Happy City, he writes, “The most important psychological effect of the city is the way in which it moderates our relationships with other people.” More, he states, “[C]onnected people sleep better at night. They are more able to tackle adversity. They live longer. They consistently report being happier.”


The happiness I speak of is the real deal—not the happiness that is short pleasure, a momentary spike in life. I am talking about eudaimonic happiness—created by meaningful and inspirational moments in our lives. What if we decided to pursue that kind of happiness above all else? We could promote the greatest opportunities for happiness for the greatest number of people. While not guaranteeing happiness for everyone, it would mean that each person has an equal opportunity to improve his or her happiness with no requirements to seek it.

Meanwhile, when we talk about sustainability, it’s all doom and gloom: You or your genetic line will likely die from climate change, rising oceans, dwindling resources, or an exploding population. Until that point in time, our solutions include some variation of increased education, technological innovation, or policy changes. We use these strategies to minimize our ecological footprints, clean our water and air, and move toward a sustainable future. These are all good causes, without question. Here’s the problem—we are searching for and developing solutions within a system that primarily values money, status, and wealth. It is a system that has produced some of the greatest challenges our global population has seen.


Albert Einstein is often cited as saying, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” The human species is at a crucial turning point; we can choose to continue our mad hunt for money or we can take a step back and consider our values.

Let’s intentionally design and redesign our systems for happiness. We can start with the place we spend most of our time—the neighborhood. Communities (and anything that can be designed) should be designed to offer the greatest opportunity for people to pursue their own happiness. On the neighborhood level, this would include, but is certainly not limited to, the following:

  • clean water
  • access to affordable and healthy foods
  • economic opportunity
  • green spaces and access to nature
  • equitable, clean transportation
  • clean, reliable energy sources
  • social gathering and interaction spaces
  • equal education opportunities
  • minimal to zero waste
  • global happiness governance and support
  • culturally sensitive design


The last one is critical—local culture must be embraced, or the efforts won’t work. For instance, at a recent community meeting that I attended, a community planner mentioned the concept of a community association to local residents; the residents were multigenerational farmers who inherited the land, and had zero interest of traditional community organization.


Humans face the ultimate challenge: survival. Refocusing our energy and efforts on what we are trying to accomplish, where we hope to be, is the first step. A happy neighborhood is not universal in design; yet, happiness is a universal value that we all share. Revitalizing our neighborhoods to be happy is a long stride toward sustainability. The effort could result in a more equitable, just, and sustainable world.

On Friday, March 6, at “Emerge: The Future of Choices and Values,” a festival of the future at Arizona State University, Scott Cloutier and his students will present and discuss a “visitation from the future” regarding a real neighborhood in Tempe, Arizona, that he and his team have been working with. For more information, visit emerge.asu.edu. Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and ASU