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World Happiness Report 2017: Opportunities for designing 'social' into the environment
By Erin Sharp Newton, Assoc. AIA, M. Arch., USA
April will be Happy Birthday to the World Happiness Report. Fresh off the press on March 20th (The International Day of Happiness), this year’s report marks the 5 year anniversary of the first edition. First published in April 2012 by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network in support of the UN High Level Meeting on Happiness, The 2017 World Happiness Report spans across 155 countries, and the data is used world-wide in informing policy makers in their decision processes.
For the researcher, the scientist, the evidence based practitioner, and for any persons in society focused on wellness in the world, this 188 page report provides data-focused, tangible summaries to help gauge well-being of people where they live.
Summary of the report's methods
Happy 10 - The top 10 happiest countries are the same as last year (though in different positions)
Un-Happy 10 - The top ten unhappiest countries (from bottom up)
The key factors that the top ten 'happiest' countries have in common are:
Of particular interest in this year’s World Happiness Report is that it reveals the important role of social factors in supporting happiness. The calculations show that elevating the social foundations from low levels up to the world average levels would have greater positive affect than that of living longer, and making more money, combined.
This graph from the World Happiness Report 2017 demonstrates the impact of social support (mustard colour) on a country's overall happiness rating, using 2014-16 data. (54-155 are at the end of the article).
In Norway the oil prices fell, yet they moved into the number one position in the World Happiness Report. The idea that the successful output of goods and services does not denote a country's wellbeing, is shown in the fact that China’s Gross National Product (GDP) multiplied 5 times over a hundred years, while its subjective wellbeing (SWB) spent 15 years in decline, before starting to improve. Stress and anxiety in the labor market are attributed to this decline of SWB from 1990-2005, whereas changes in unemployment and in the social safety net are ascribed to their substantial recovery. Meanwhile, the Report attributes lower levels of happiness in many African countries to the slowness of change, even as democracy improves. Meeting basic needs in infrastructure and youth development still have not been sufficiently achieved, though the report suggests that African people's exceptional optimism may be their saving grace.
In Western countries mental health seems to affect happiness more than income. "In rich countries the biggest single cause of misery is mental illness," said Professor Richard Layard, director of the Wellbeing Programme at the London School of Economics' Centre for Economic Performance on this year’s Day of Happiness. The United States, Australia, Britain and Indonesia hold economic variables, social factors and health as their key determinants of happiness, while the emergence of mental illness is reportedly more important to all three Western Societies than income, employment or physical illness.
The 2017 World Happiness Report adds investigation of how work affects happiness, and shows that while income may not buy happiness, work matters. Across the world, those with jobs gauged their lives more satisfactorily than the unemployed, and demonstrate that rising unemployment rates affect everyone negatively. The report goes further into condition and types of work as also having an effect on predicting happiness levels.
The United States happiness rating has declined this year, now ranking at 14th, with a score of 6.99. While income and life-expectancy improved, the following four social variables declined:
Based on the calculation system, these declines in social variables could explain the significant drop in overall ranking for the US, emphasising that meeting social needs is crucial to happiness scores.
The 2017 World Happiness Report serves as a tool for many purposes. It helps to understand who is doing well, who isn’t, as well as why or why not in terms of national 'happiness'. Furthermore this report provides a clarification for areas of need – such as the need for the increased social support that is present where we see a greater level of measured happiness.
What this all culminates in is a viable agenda for implementation. The 2017 World Happiness Report demonstrates how social factors affect wellbeing and happiness positively, or conversely where there is lack, negatively. These aspects can be addressed through our development of policies and solutions, as planners, architects, designers and citizens active in our communities. We can target our efforts to support or create opportunities for social interaction, community support, and personal freedom. Through these efforts we can play a role in improving happiness across the board.
For UD/MH practical measures for solutions see:
The remainder of the 2014-16 rankings.
About the Author
We are often contacted by journalists, urban designers, planners and policymakers, asking the same simple question: can you give us some examples of urban design that promotes good mental health in cities around the world? We want to be able to give them a range of interesting examples from cities all over the world, but our eyes can't be everywhere.
The aim of our Instagram page is to present good (and bad!) examples of urban design for good mental health from all over the world. These could take any form, such as; parks, open spaces, public buildings, housing, etc - and any scale, city-wide or nuanced (as long as it fits into a photograph). The pictures should demonstrate the use of any of the urban design factors that affect mental health. These snapshots will weave together to create a patchwork of inspiration, and points of discussion – as well as feeding into the growing discourse of conscious urban design for the benefit of public health. The pictures may also be shared on our website or in publications to demonstrate challenges and possibilities.
It would be great to see this page grow and attract and connect new audiences around the world, alongside the other social media channels used by UD/MH. Moreover, it is a great way for all of us to show off our favourite cities, and our projects.
How can you get involved?
We look forward to seeing and sharing your pictures.
About the Author
Charlotte Collins is a UD/MH Associate. She is responsible for managing the UD/MH Instagram account.
Charlotte is studying BA Geography at UCL, and is currently on an exchange year at the Freie Universität Berlin. Her main interests are in the architecture and regeneration of urban housing estates and its link to wellbeing, which she is currently researching for her undergraduate dissertation.
by Rhiannon Corcoran and Graham Marshall, The Prosocial Place Programme, UK
To support the collective social wellbeing set out in the Marmot Review, Fair Society Healthy Lives (2010), we need to foster a culture that regards and manages places as essential infrastructure. We have entered a critical era where greater thought leadership in our place-making culture is essential.
Dubbed “Toxic Assets” by CABE, Britain’s poorly performing urban places and communities continue to absorb much of our GDP, where land, places and people are exploited and treated like commodities.
In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Jarred Diamond discusses the dangers of continued exploitation and the outcomes for societies that could not change their behaviour patterns: certain extinction.
With expenditure outstripping income, we have entered a long period of economic depression with high levels of ‘welfare’ costs signifying a nation under stress. Whilst the government’s economic austerity measures may rebalance the budget on paper, their short-term nature does not address the fundamental health and wellbeing issues that impact individuals, communities and the wider stability of the nation.
The Marmot Review emphasises the impact of urban quality on matters of equity, health and wellbeing giving urban designers an important role to play, but not through the technocratic fixes that they are typically trained to deliver. So, where do we start when thinking about the relationship between place-making, health and wellbeing?
THE URBAN PENALTY
Probably the most fundamental principle is embodied in the Government’s “No Health Without Mental Health” policy. Social scientists have consistently found urban areas to have higher prevalence’s of both diagnosed mental health conditions and a lowered level of wellbeing known as “languishing”. Public health research identifies this failure as the ‘urban penalty’, or the ‘urbanicity effect’, arguing that it results from poor social integration, social isolation, discrimination and deprivation – things we intuitively grasp as urban designers.
However, if we explore these issues through the lens of Life History Theory developed by evolutionary psychologists, we can begin to see things a little differently and to understand better the adaptive nature of human behaviour in context. Research has found that where resources are stable, reliable and predictable, people can plan their futures, enabling greater resilience and the capacity to adapt in response to inevitable life stresses, to change and to cooperate with similarly future oriented people they encounter in their communities. It should be no surprise that public spending is lowest in places where people are prosperous, well-educated and healthy.
When we study low resource environments through this same lens, we find that people live their lives and forage in a different adaptive way. This can be difficult for design professionals to understand and, furthermore, the outcomes of this way of being are typically disapproved of by society. The insecurity of resources promotes an adaptive strategy, termed ‘future-discounting’ in those who live in these harsh environments. In other words, in these environments immediate gratification of wellbeing needs is an ingrained, sensible strategy to pursue.
In general people who live in harsh environments will tend to thrill seek, shun long term educational goals, have children younger, act impulsively etc. However, together, harsh environments and the behaviours they prime have significantly negative impacts on sustainable individual and community wellbeing. Harsh environments also tend to get harsher as people make only defensive, short-term investments in them. This includes the managerial actions that public authorities imposed upon these places.
And when we talk about resources we mean more than money – we refer to the whole resource of our human habitat and relationships. A gated, well healed estate is just as capable of promoting low levels of wellbeing as public housing can.
WHAT IS WELL-DESIGNED?
In short, Life History Theory shows how the qualities of an environment directly determine our life strategies and our wellbeing. In so doing, it emphasises the utmost importance of urban design, but when government policies demand places are ‘well designed’, what do they expect from this nebulous phrase? In 2012, Dr Steven Marshall published a paper interrogating urban design theory and found it “based on assumption and consensus, open to wide and personal interpretation by all players in the built environment and pseudo-scientific at best” – assuming built environment practitioners apply any principles at all.
The time to address the weaknesses in our urban design practices and prejudices is overdue. We need to widen our knowledge base and work with social scientists to understand our intrinsic human ecology and the predictability of its ‘pattern language’. Whilst many secure professionals can successfully ‘forage’ in the ecological niche that is the ‘built environment’ or ‘regeneration’ industry, we embrace higher concerns that will advance thought leadership in place-making.
We need to design, manage and maintain ‘psychologically benign’ environments that reduce feelings of ‘threat’ to optimise opportunities for people to interact and cooperate. This is prosociality; co-operative social behaviour towards a common goal that benefits other people or society as a whole, such as helping, sharing, donating, and volunteering. Prosocial communities are central to sustained wellbeing and themselves encourage future focussed perspectives in the individuals who live in them.
The BBC documentary series The Secret History of Our Streets provides a good illustration of the issues we face today. Silo thinking, unaccountable planning (eg highways), starchitecture (remote), all create harsh environments that are barriers to our intrinsic preference for cooperation and interaction.
In the episode on Duke Street in Glasgow (2 of series 2), we can watch an unfolding story of a place that developed from nothing during the Industrial Revolution, suffered social policy failures and then was dismantled bit-by-bit by planning and design policy failures. The scenes near the end of the programme show a townscape that has been ‘un-placed’. An uplifting aspect of the programme is the positive response from the community against this threat, demonstrating the powerful force of prosociality where it prevails.
A WELL-DESIGN PLACE
It is important to note the fore-sighting that tells us that at least 80% of the buildings that we will inhabit in 2050 have already been built. Moreover, many of the new buildings erected between now and then will be constructed within existing fabrics and infrastructures, and so be quickly assimilated to become ‘existing’ too and subject to the same management regimes. We therefore need to:
Read more about pro-social design by the authors here.
About the Authors
The original version of this blog was posted at What Works Wellbeing
Sanity and Urbanity: