Well-Being of our Community – Invaluable but not Invisible

Today Jeff and I are announcing a project we will be spending a lot more time on this Fall.  We would like to get you involved in photographing the value in our lives that cannot be expressed in monetary terms- invaluable things we do every day that contribute to our well-being and the well-being of our communities.  These are things that don’t cost a dollar, and do not contribute to GDP, but make our lives richer.

Our inspiration was a recent trip to Charlottesville, VA during Fridays after Five.

On the downtown pedestrian mall we were awash in the flow of people meandering to one end of the mall to join in with the salsa band.  It was a brutal winter for Charlottesville, but on that evening, spring weather made its first appearance and short sleeves and sandals were out with a cathartic vengeance.  Street performers and musicians were surrounded by amebic, smiling mobs.  A grassroots symphony of laughter and the clatter of glass and silverware from al fresco dining floated by on the breeze.  A complete spectrum of the local community- from stroller to cane- could be taken in with a single scan.

Here was a vibrant community.  If asked to pick the happiest community out of a line-up, a five-year old could surely spot this one.

It was the same day that the first quarter U.S. GDP figures for 2010 were announced.  The figures were higher than expected and the stock exchange tickers plotted a new, skyward course in celebration.  (It turns out that this new course lasted only one week, until a glitch in the circuitry of one of the exchanges and a downward adjustment of the first quarter jobs growth figure conspired to bend the arrow back earthward, yet again).

The contrast was inescapable to us.  So we started asking questions:

How would you tell a five-year old what a thriving community looks like?  Well-Being?  Social capital?  How to make it, build it, nurture it?  How could these things, which we value so much but aren’t accustomed to counting, be so elegantly and simply conveyed as a GDP report; a single number that goes up or down?  While the loudest voices during this down economy tell us the best thing we can do for the economy is to “shop!” and “spend!” what is the equivalent advice is for improving our communities’ well-being?

And more importantly, who could tell me how Charlottesville got to this place, at this moment in time?  Who else is working to recreate this scene where I live now, in D.C., as the Capital Hip Hop Soul Fest plans to do July 24?

The race among competing alternative measures to GDP is on, but until there is consensus, we thought that we could start with something much simpler, and possibly more meaningful: a blog project centered around community-led photography of the non-monetary economy.

There are some bigger wonky reasons for wanting to do this, but that’s just the back-drop.  Some countries, such as Bhutan and France are moving away from GDP and towards Well Being as primary indicators for national vitality and prosperity. Time Magazine recently discussed whether the U.S. might be thinking about the same thing (something Bobby Kennedy was talking about 40 years ago).

If the world does move away from GDP and towards well-being indicators, we are curious what that will mean for individuals, communities, and businesses, and for how they will measure their success in that new paradigm.

We are looking for partners interested in working with us or being interviewed by us to help us explore this topic, including three main focus areas:

1) Community Social Asset Mapping – conducting simple surveys to help us identify our community’s “social assets;” those things (people, entrepreneurs, clubs, businesses, even websites) which contribute to a stronger community by building new relationships, strengthening new ones, increasing the amount of time people share and give to others in their area, etc.  We will back these surveys up with interviews to go on the blog.

2) Community Photography – photography of the everyday things people do that have value and don’t cost a dollar. We are looking, in particular, to get local students involved.

3) Entrepreneur and Business/Nonprofit Profiles – photography of what a positive social impact looks like, on a personal and moment-by-moment level, for B Corps, Ashoka Fellows, or other groups that have built a positive social impact into their missions.  If there is demand, we might even roll up our sleeves and help businesses or nonprofits complete social impact assessments, using existing tools such as the Bhutanese Gross National Happiness project screening tool or the B Corps impact assessment tool as a guide.

Do you have ideas, want to help, or want to suggest friends of yours we should meet?  Thanks!


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3 Responses to “Well-Being of our Community – Invaluable but not Invisible”

  • Making Time as Sexy as GDP | Idea Engine Says:

    [...] D.C.’s new Time Banking community, learn more about the concept, and check out our new blog project focusing on this topic in the Fall. var a2a_config = a2a_config || {}; [...]

  • Joi Ito Says:

    Another approach to this that I find useful is the Dali Lama’s distinction between happiness and pleasure that he talks about in “The Art of Happiness”. He describes that happiness is about sustainable things and feelings like compassion. Communities, family, health – they are not measured by how much you have. A family 2X the size doesn’t make you 2X happier.

    Pleasure, on the other hand, is often measured in numbers like how much money you have, what car you want, etc. The problem with pleasures or this utility function like way of measuring happiness is that you are never really happy. When you get that nice car, the next day you’ve adjusted and you want the next car. No one ever has “enough” money.

    The idea that more than enough is too much and the idea that goals and “more more more” isn’t real happiness might also be something to capture.

    That’s the only difficulty I see in metrics. It’s hard to say whether one person is happier than another or what exactly it is in the environment, at least in a numerically quantifiable way, is making you happier.

  • alan Says:

    Thanks a lot for the comment Joi and I apologize about how long it has taken to reply. As it turns out, the reason for that delay was that I was in Tibet for the summer with limited time and access to email.

    The Dalai Lama, and Tibetan Buddhism in general, are great sources of inspiration for this project. We are drawing specifically from Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness project, which is itself rooted in Tibetan buddhist ideas, and working on getting in direct contact with them.

    We are ok with people never being satisfied with their lot in life, but hoping to make the object of that energy, and of that undying human urge for more or better, to be “what can I do to improve the well-being of my community?? Oh look, these are the problems I can work on! These are the people I can work with!” We’re hoping this project puts together that kind of a growing map people can reference… it appeals to the same human impulses as growing GDP but refocuses it to what actually improves our wellbeing.

    As Edgar Cahn told me “I looked at every resource I could think of that we use, and the only one I could find that didn’t diminish when it was used was sharing human effort and knowledge.”*

    By the way, you might like the book Hooked if you are interested in buddhist takes on happiness and consumption. (http://www.amazon.com/Hooked-Buddhist-Writings-Desire-Consume/dp/1590301722/ref=sr_1_5?s=gateway&ie=UTF8&qid=1285008012&sr=8-5)

    Thanks again for your comment!

    *paraphrasing from memory

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