It’s something we all long for—to live in a happy community, a place where we feel safe, peaceful, nurtured and healthy, and where we engage with others in a positive and uplifting way. When that isn’t our experience, many of us tend to isolate ourselves or relocate. But, what if instead we could create a happy community, just where we are?
Dan Buettner is the founder of Blue Zones, an organization that helps Americans live longer, healthier, happier lives. Drawing from studies and his own experience in working with communities, Buettner in his latest book, The Blue Zones of Happiness, distills all the research he has acquired into easy-to-follow changes that we can each make to have better, more engaged neighborhoods.
What he discovered in his research was that among the key metrics that made for a happy community was a high level of civic engagement. For example, Boulder, Colorado is consistently voted the happiest city in the US in which to live, and it has a very active civic culture where City Hall meetings are “packed,” and residents are vocal on all issues from traffic management to development. In order to get your neighborhood more engaged, Buettner suggests gathering people from the community to create a committee dedicated to working with those in the public sector such as the mayor, the city council, school superintendents, health organizations, and police. “You can’t legislate or buy a happy city,” points out Buettner. Rather, “it takes a community.”
Groups of inspired people in a community can rally around some of the other key factors that create a happy place to live. People who commute on their bikes are happier than those who drive cars or ride buses or trains to work, research has found. Similarly, happy cities like Boulder focus on the pedestrian experience and prioritize green spaces. Encouraging your local council to widen sidewalks in downtown areas, create pedestrian-only zones, plant more trees, and introduce bike lanes are ways we can each make a difference in our community. Small changes can lead to significant differences in well-being. As a result of adding bike routes and widening sidewalks in downtown Albert Lea, Minnesota, there was an uptick in pedestrian traffic of 70 percent, and many new businesses sprung up.
Increasing the number of opportunities to be outside walking, cycling, or sitting in nature leads to healthier communities, and healthier communities are also happier communities. But we don’t have to leave all the work to health organizations, particularly around healthy eating. In Marion, Iowa, for example, residents took healthy eating into their own hands by introducing a new town ordinance that allowed the community to raise chickens, keep bees and establish a farmers’ market. In just two years they achieved almost a 22 percent increase in the number of people eating healthy foods.
Such efforts by communities are volunteer-led, but Buettner found from research that volunteering around improving community well-being actually makes for happier people. It becomes a virtuous circle. For one, volunteering, particularly among older generations, becomes a way of “fortifying a sense of purpose as well as reducing health risks,” he says. Kathleen Stone in White Lake Hills in Fort Worth, for example, devised a plan to engage with the neighborhood’s elderly and vulnerable by creating a neighborhood committee to find out what they would need in the event of a power outage. That gave them an excuse to start conversations with parts of the community that had felt isolated and helped improve the overall happiness and well-being of the residents of White Lake Hills. Bertha Barnes, also in Fort Worth, created a “walking school bus” where children are picked up and walked together to school giving them exercise, and providing opportunities for volunteers.
With small individual and group efforts, we can create a community of our dreams, fostering greater interaction among residents, and a common sense of pride that gives momentum to further improvements. It’s not always easy. As Stone says: “Neighborhood spirit is hard won. You have to create that sense of community where you are.” But as Buettner shows, it is possible.
Photo Credit: Raw Pixel/iStock