John de Graaf and Laura Musikanski on What Makes People Happy

John de Graaf and Laura Musikanski, co-founders of The Happiness Initiative, talk about why we associate having material goods with happiness, and what aspects of life truly make us happy. The pair are featured speakers at the April 4, 2012, Think & Drink at Seattle’s Naked City Brewery and Taphouse.

Consumerism T&D LogoWhat makes people happy? John de Graaf and Laura Musikanski, co-founders of Seattle-based nonprofit The Happiness Initiative, aim to answer this burning question at Humanities Washington’s Think & Drink event titled Consumerism & The Pursuit of Happiness on Wednesday, April 4th, at Naked City Brewery & Taphouse in Seattle [directions]. As a documentary filmmaker, de Graaf first explored the topic of consumerism in his 1996 PBS documentary Affluenza, which spawned subsequent documentaries and books about the insatiable desire for material goods in America. Musikanski, a lawyer by trade, was the executive director of Sustainable Seattle before launching The Happiness Initiative with de Graaf. Through that initiative, they provide resources to help the local – and global – community measure and improve happiness.

John de Graaf
John de Graaf

We are part of an expanding global happiness movement that is shifting society’s focus on money, wealth and economic growth as the prerequisites to happiness, to a comprehensive measure of well-being,” says Musikanski. The project is modeled after the Gross National Happiness philosophy from the country of Bhutan. Since founding its founding in 2011, The Happiness Initiative has surveyed and analyzed the happiness data for Seattle, and is working with community groups and researchers to gather and analyze more data for other parts of the country. The Seattle data can be found in our very own Happiness Report Card.

Laura Musikanski
Laura Musikanski

What is most surprising about the Seattle report card, according to de Graaf, is that people aged 19-24 are reporting being less happy than other age groups. “It seems this may be the effect of the current economy and the new pressures on young people,” says de Graaf. “Over 10,000 people have taken our current survey, and the scores for youth are consistently lower. This is very concerning, and, in our view, worthy of further study.” Humanities Washington had a chance to interview de Graaf and Musikanski via email to learn more about why Americans crave material wealth, how happiness is measured and what Americans can do to improve their level of happiness.

Humanities Washington: What factors contributed to the development of our desire for material goods in post-war America?

John de Graaf: There were probably many factors, including the new availability of easier credit, government support for home ownership, and particularly, the rise of television, a medium that could communicate messages to buy much more effectively. New knowledge in consumer psychology made a difference, especially in the approach of advertising. Then, too, the shift of manufacturing to low-wage countries made the price of goods cheaper, which allowed for great consumption even while real wages were not increasing. Families also went from one to two breadwinners, allowing for somewhat more disposable income.  None of these were bad in themselves but they did lead to a huge growth in consumption.

HW: Do you think the current economic recession has impacted or altered the consumption behaviors of Americans over the last few years? 

JdG: It’s hard to say. It’s certainly had some temporary impact on buying for many people who are consuming less, but whether this trend will continue as the economy gets back to normal – if it does – is uncertain. The essential belief that the good life is the goods life has not changed.

HW: As co-founder of The Happiness Initiative, how do you measure happiness? 

Laura Musikanski: We follow the model of Bhutan, and use a survey complemented by objective indicators to give a full picture of well-being along ten domains, or “conditions” of well-being: material well-being, governance, environment, education, community, culture, health, psychological well-being, time-balance and work experience; as well as satisfaction with life and affect (feelings). You can see a national happiness score card on our website at:

HW: In looking at the data for the Seattle Happiness Report Card, would you say that we’re a happy city overall? 

LM: First, it is important to understand that the Seattle Happiness Report Card is based on opt-in (i.e., people volunteered to take the survey) survey responses and not on a random sample. Over 2,400 Seattleites took the survey and 4,600 others from around the country. We were able to compare results for certain domains to Gallup, which indicated our report is fairly accurate. We found that for the most part, Seattle is in about the same shape as the rest of the country. That said, Gallup polls in the US cite for affect and satisfaction with life, and found Seattle fairly near the top in happiness. However, we have been working with small immigrant and refugee community based organizations in Seattle, and, albeit the samples are not representative, the survey results come out quite a bit lower than the rest of our nation, indicating these communities are not “happy.”

HW: What do you think Americans can do to improve their true level of happiness?

LM: Analysis of our happiness data about which domains are linked to happiness in terms of affect (feelings) and satisfaction with life is aligned with scientific findings. The analysis shows that you get the biggest bang in happiness from a strong sense of community (family and friends, involvement in volunteer organizations, trust in people around you). If you earn below $75,000 for a family of four, you should also see noticeable increases in happiness with increased earnings, but not so much after that. In other words, your happiness increased only marginally after $75,000.  Other important ways to improve your happiness are ensuring you have time-balance in your life, engaging in cultural activities, improving your physical health and getting involved in the democratic process.

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