Does Transition make people happier and healthier?

Surveys show that the proportion of people describing themselves as ‘very happy’ has fallen in the last fifty years, while levels of depression have risen significantly.

One factor causing this situation is how many people in the developed world now live isolated from the people around them.

While we might have lots of Facebook friends, many of us do not know much about our immediate neighbours or live in places where we are part of the community.

Dr Chris Johnstone, a specialist in the psychology of resilience, happiness and positive change, says that “as a society, we’ve taken a massive wrong turn by seeking personal gain and short-term pleasure in ways that create a disaster for us all in the long-term.”

Politicians including French president Nicolas Sarkozy and UK prime minister David Cameron, are now looking for metrics to measure the general wellbeing of their nations. The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan meanwhile, has been working to transform its national education system to reflect the values of Gross National Happiness, defined as “sacredness, reverence, honour, and respect,” by the country’s first elected prime minister, Lyonchhen Jigme Y. Thinley.

“In the modern classroom nothing much is taught about happiness, generosity, goodness, and humility,” he says. “And then, when they go home, most of our children, especially in the urban areas, sit in front of the television.”

The picture that is projected on TVs around the world is that happiness comes from having more stuff. However, Johnstone points out that pleasure from things tends to wear off soon after disengaging with or after having too much of these things. For real happiness, he points to ‘afterglow.’ This he defines as a warm feeling of contentment, still experienced months or even years later, after having done something we feel good about.

According to Johnstone, people who volunteer for causes close to their heart consistently score highly on happiness scales. When people give their time, energy and focussed attention to others, they receive the benefits of improved relationships and a strengthening of the feeling that life is worthwhile.

Similarly, a report about the world’s happiest places, published in 2009 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), found that while the economic health of a country, gainful employment and work-life balance played a role in citizens’ happiness, factors such as family, social, and community networks were also key.

While many people involved in Transition have experienced this for themselves, Janet Richardson, professor of health service research at the University of Plymouth, has begun research looking at the impact of engagement in Transition.

Richardson’s initial short report, titled ‘Assessing the potential health impacts of a Transition Town initiative’, looks at the Totnes Transition Together and Transition Streets projects, which have encouraged local participation in carbon reduction schemes street by street.

Both the positive and negative potential impacts of these two projects on people’s wellbeing were assessed. Unsurprisingly, Richardson found that as a result of neighbours meeting and socialising together because of the projects, social cohesion in the communities had increased.

One of the participants in a Transition Totnes Streets group, Jenny Gellatly, commented: “You can go for years without knowing your neighbours; now we go to the pub together. I feel I can go round and knock on a neighbour’s door to borrow tools, while our kitchen scraps are eaten by one of our neighbour’s chickens and our slugs by another’s ducks.”

So what is the top tip for creating happiness? According to Johnstone it is to understand ‘afterglow’ and then find ways to seek it out. Getting involved in your nearest Transition Initiative would seem to fit the bill.