WINDSOR, NS - Sometimes good intentions are simply that: good intentions.
But some researchers and academics seem to think that there’s more to the Happy Community Project than just a good idea.
Dr. Laurie Santos is a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University. She says the Happy Community Project sounds like a great project and could increase an area’s social connection.
Santos says social scientists, like herself, often think about ‘happiness’ in terms of subjective well-being, which is a combination of how you evaluate your life, which can be called a ‘cognitive’ part of well-being and the emotions you feel, which is more the ‘affective’ part of well-being.
“Research by the positive psychologists Marty Seligman and Ed Diener has shown that social connection is a necessary feature for high subjective well-being. They found that very happy people always have more social ties and more time with other people," Santos said.
"Based on this work, the Happy Community Project would seem to be doing exactly what the research suggests will boost subjective well-being.”
She teaches a course titled 'Happiness,' and it’s become the Ivy League school’s most popular class ever.
Happiness on a global scale
The Happiness Research Institute is an independent think tank based in Copenhagen, Denmark that specializes in studying quality of life.
Isabella Arendt is an analyst from the think tank. She says the most powerful indicator of happiness is often social connections.
“In the World Happiness Reports, the question is very conservative and people are just asked if they have one person to count on in times of need,” Arendt said.
Having people to trust is important, she says.
“Studies find that loneliness is one of the main reasons people get unhappy, which further supports the claim of social relations as the most important thing for our happiness.”
Arendt said there are many examples around the world that highlight this, with the common thread being that community members are helping each other out.
“The good communities are those who are strong enough to have members, who are not doing well,” she said. “Where people can spend time alone or together as a family when they want to… but where they can also participate in joined activities, when this is wanted.”
Arendt stresses that it’s important that the threshold for participation isn't too high.
Activities that are too expensive or require employment of some form, or ones that exclude those with health and mobility issues, can be detrimental.
“Empowerment is a good way to create a sense of belonging,” she said. “To create the community in a way where the people participating are also those in charge. And make sure that each person has the freedom to shape the community and be a part of making it.”
When told about what the Happy Community Project is attempting to achieve, Arendt said she was amazed by what it has already achieved, adding she’s like to see more of these groups pop up around the world.
Mary Sweatman, a lecturer at Acadia University, brought 40 community development students to Windsor in March to look at what impact the Happy Community Project is having in the Windsor area.
The students presented their findings during a Happy Community Project meeting on April 4 at the Hants County War Memorial Community Centre.
Every year the department of community development takes their first-year students on a community experience trip. Sweatman says The Happy Community Project was mentioned as an interesting concept that has popped up in the area, and after hearing about it, the students dug in to learn more.
“When I learned about the Happy Community Project, I thought this was perfect because it is all about asset redevelopment and leadership styles, which we talk a lot about in our program,” Sweatman said.
The students interviewed members of the various Happy Community Project initiatives and other community members to get a sense of how large of an impact the organization was having.
Sweatman said the experience was a mutually beneficial one, as her students got to learn about what was happening in Windsor as part of their program and also for the Happy Community Project members, who received insights on what the students found.
“It was reemphasized to us, after speaking to project leaders, how important social capital is for them,” she said. “It might be the community breakfast or the garden, but whatever the initiative is, it has to come back to connecting community members.”
Another big theme that came up from these discussions was youth integration into these projects and not just ones that were specifically targeted at young people.
“We also have to be mindful of who is not there, who’s not in the room when we’re engaging with them,” she said. “In the informal interviews we conducted, it was clear that some community members knew about it, but others are either unaware or apathetic to it, which is fairly normal.”
But she sees opportunities to grow that.
“There’s an opportunity for the Happy Community Project now, how to use tools such as place-making, and universal design, concepts we look at, to ensure that more people are invited into the planning and development stage,” she said.
Kyle Bower, one of the Acadia students that took part in the survey, said it was a fun experience.
“It was kind of like a whole bunch of Acadia students just storming Windsor, people probably noticed a bunch of us wandering around, talking to people, taking pictures,” Bower said. “We all got to learn a little bit about one part of the town, with a specific part, interviewing certain people.”
All of that information was then put together to establish a broad view of the town as a whole.
Based on what he’s seen, Bower said he’s impressed with how quickly the Happy Community Project has ramped up.
“An overarching theme we’re seeing is people wanting to meet their neighbours, wanting to feel comfortable in their space,” he said. “They’re taking ownership of their community.”