The difficulty of measuring wellbeing, happiness and other less tangible social indicators
Those who have heard me speak on why I became a planner know that a trip to Nepal when I was 11 years old was pivotal. For context, growing up, our family holidays were not your typical family holidays. My dad (Stephen Codrington) is an intrepid traveller and geographer himself and he would take us off the beaten track, spending time with local people - understanding how they lived and enabling us to experience the sights, smells and landscapes of other cultures. These trips had a profound impact on me and the way I saw the world, ignited my love of human geography and ultimately led me down the path of social sustainability in which I work today. (Thanks Dad!!)
In the photo below, I'm at the front with a simple hoop and stick game the local children played, with my brother and my dad behind me. We wandered along with them, laughing, and trying to play this game. I was hopeless and couldn't get more than a couple of steps with this hoop, while they would be able to roll it and keep it upright without even looking at it. What struck me most was how happy they were. Genuinely happy - so smiley, so friendly, and language was no barrier. They welcomed us in and showed us their neighbourhood. They seemed to have so little, and yet the joy that they shared was palpable. I remember coming home and tearing up at just how much we had in contrast to these kids. That contrast and feeling is imprinted in my being.
We frequently come across how hard it is to measure social sustainability. People often ask me - yes, but how do we measure it? How do we know we've had an impact? Often the measure ends up being a proxy, or qualitative measures, rather than the hard data you can get on economic sustainability. Sure, there are some clear measurable indicators, like provision of and access to education and health, for example - and these are (of course) important. But harder to measure is wellbeing and happiness. And these are just as important for social sustainability as well.
I wouldn't go so far as to say this community on a hillside in Nepal that I had the pleasure of experiencing was the epitome of social sustainability. There were many important aspects to social sustainability that they surely lacked. But I still remember their deep seated joy and happiness, 30 years later. And I wish I could measure that.