In Ruchir Shama’s opinion piece last month, he wrote about recent efforts to move “beyond…
With lockdowns, political paralysis, physical separation from friends and family we want to hold, it’s hard to talk about much of good that has come out of these times. However, we are learning some big lessons – the most important of which are about our need to connect to other human beings, and the importance of our shared human values.
Over a period of several years ending in 2019, my friend Paula Frances walked 10,000 miles around America. Her “Happiness Walk” allowed her to talk with thousands of people about what matters most in their life. “The biggest response was that our relationships with one another, with all beings and the planet are the most important,” she says.
While Paula is still compiling and analyzing all the responses from all those conversations, a Boston-area think tank called Populace appears to confirm her take-away. In 2019, Populace did a study of people’s private opinions of what constitutes success and how they believe other people gauge it. 97% of the more than 5,200 people surveyed defined personal success as following “their own interests and talents to become the best they can be at what they care about most.” When asked to rate what parts of success were most important to them personally, respondents said that “education, relationships and character” mattered most, while “status” was the least important.
The takeaway from this study was clear: The vast majority of us want to pursue lives of meaning and purpose, yet we simultaneously believe that most other people don’t care about those things as much as we do. So basically, what we all really value are social connectedness, psychological and spiritual well being, and our community’s vitality. The question now is how, as a society, do we figure out how to embed those values in the future economic and political choices we make, beginning with our own Vermont communities?
For instance, a few years ago, based on the Design Competition, the Sustainable Montpelier Coalition started re-imagining how the Capital City’s massive commitment to parking lots could be redeveloped as mixed-use housing. Such development could would allow older people to mix with the younger folks to add vibrancy to the city. Each of us probably knows some older people, whose homesteads are getting to be too much harder work, and who would love to move into town but can’t find any places they can afford. By investing in ways of keeping our children and friends more locally connected and living closer together, we could achieve several goals at once: We would reduce rural spread, create less dependency on fossil fuels, and increase the happiness that comes from closer human connection.
If we couple that understanding with the need to critically respond to climate and economic challenges, a strong commitment to the pursuit of happiness would help guide our other choices for other public goods, such as food, shelter and transportation. To insulate ourselves from the climate disruption of growing regions in the west and south, we could find security in building personal relations with those who grow our food locally. In many areas more personal relations locally will make our access to services and assistance less dependent on cost, and more dependent on our simple care for each other. If you accept my premise that we should be building a future based on our happiness rather than our economic status, then perhaps we need to ask ourselves a whole bunch of questions about what we actually find important.
I have also met a good number of younger people who would like to live here in our community, but find the cost of entry is way too high. This should not be surprising because the current costs of creating new housing is way over what normal people can afford. So to build a happier denser, more connected future, we have to find other models of creating new housing, because the costs of our current systems of land, labor and materials has gotten too expensive for most of us who once thought we were part of the middle class. Sadly, most of us are not prepared to challenge the current expectations of where housing comes from, yet.
We can also reimagine how we get around. For example, Green Mountain Transit, with SMC’s public engagement support, is about to launch the new MyRide on demand transit service next week. This service will make it easier for folks to get in and out of town without their cars, and without having to wait around for buses. This will then lower the demand for those parking lots. Yet, that is merely a piece of a strategy that must be embraced by our community to shift to a future based on well being. (in this case, repopulated, diverse and vibrant downtown built on those parking lots )
This is one example of how we probably need to readapt out thinking back to an earlier time of public decision making when we were focused on our community’s well being. It’s time to rediscover our capacity to work together countering, and yes, sacrifice a little to overcome the loss of community connections. That capacity may only be repaired by changing our trust in the current economic narrative of the primacy of markets.
Our young people feel they need to go elsewhere to find their fortunes because the current local realities of the “market” provide no rewards for them here.. Our elderly bought into the back to the land dream of the 1970s, but, back then, didn’t imagine that the costs of aging would be so difficult. The isolation of the Covid plague has caused many folks, spread upon the hillsides, to feel the isolation of this moment even more acutely.
We will not magically return to “normal” after the Coronavirus plague. To overcome the damage we are all feeling, I propose that we need to find other ways for building a local future that doesn’t invoke the “market” as the total measure of worth. If we remember that our personal happiness is perhaps of greater value than fame and wealth, we need begin publicly discuss how to do things differently. Given our size, our education and our imaginations, Montpelierites and those in surrounding communities can start imagining new ways to live and thrive together.
Sustainable Montpelier Coalition