March 28, 2011; Source: Reuters | The U.S. Constitution promises life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as inalienable rights. Now, the nonprofit Sustainable Seattle has launched a new initiative to tackle the third promise head-on. Organized in 1991 as a global pioneer in developing regional sustainability indicators, Sustainable Seattle has begun its fifth round of regional indicators, this time intended to measure happiness.

Yes, happiness. The “Seattle Area Happiness Initiative” (or SAHI, pronounced “Say hi!”) includes several other area nonprofits, including Take Back Your Time and the Compassionate Action Network, as key partners. SAHI partners hope that Seattle will become the first of many American “happiness” cities whose policies and priorities are guided by the impact on resident happiness.

The Seattle regional happiness indicators draw from the Himalayan country of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index, which has famously superseded Gross National Product as a measure of Bhutanese national prosperity. Based on adaptation of the nine Bhutanese indicators, SAHI organizers are combining a subjective on-line survey, community outreach to expand the diversity of survey respondents, and objective measures supported by international research to create a baseline regional assessment. Results are expected to be released later this year.

One interesting feature of the project is the melding of grass-roots organizing with power-broker advocacy. Seattle City Council President Richard Conlin is an active supporter who says, “I think we are going to learn a lot from the results. I intend to use that to shape public policy.”

What’s also interesting is that Sustainable Seattle appears to be transparently rebranding “sustainability” as “happiness” in order to broaden engagement and action beyond stalwart environmentalists. As expressed on the Sustainable Seattle website, “We cannot reasonably expect everyone to change their lifestyle because it’s the ‘right thing to do.’ We must make the stakes more human, more tactile.”

While Sustainable Seattle continues to operate other, more explicitly focused sustainability projects, the Happiness Initiative has unique potential to bridge deep policy divides and inspire sound new community development strategies. Who wouldn’t be happy about that?—Kathi Jaworski