“Professor has good feeling about Arizona State’s ‘Happy Lab’ being a route to sustainability”

By Sally Mesarosh, Special for wranglernews.com

Arizona State professor Scott Cloutier has a vision: By creating healthy, happy and sustainable neighborhoods in South Tempe and across the Valley through the university’s Happy Neighborhoods Project, the model could empower communities all over the U.S. and internationally.

“We are fundamentally addressing some of the ways humans pursue happiness that directly diminish natural ecosystems,” Cloutier said. “We specifically do so by working to regenerate land, human communities and more-than-human communities.”

Cloutier, a Tempe resident, directs the Sustainability and Happiness Research Lab – the “Happy Lab” – in ASU’s School of Sustainability, which combines knowledge, methods and practice from several ways fields of research in order to develop strategies for moving toward a sustainable and happy future.

Because sustainability and happiness can share many of the same values and goals, improving one may also better the other, he believes.

According to the Happy Lab website, although factors that contribute to happiness differ among individuals, places and cultures, people tend to experience happiness in similar ways. Happiness often is influenced by family and social connection, economic success, education, freedom of choice, stable governmental, health and standard of living.

Scott Cloutier

In recognizing how happiness corresponds to one’s environment and ability to meet one’s needs, we can also use happiness as a metric for sustainability. Like sustainability, happiness can be enhanced through initiatives that contribute to individual, community and global well-being without negatively-impacting people, the environment or future generations.

The connection between sustainability and happiness, according to the Happy Lab website, becomes even more apparent when we consider the economic, environmental and social challenges humans face today. Population growth, pollution, environmental degradation and an ever-increasing demand for resources have resulted in a need for changes in the way we live, work and grow.

Happiness is a potential tool for transformation.

At ASU, project members work alongside residents to create edible landscaping. They also do home-improvement projects customized to the vision of each resident. They paint mailboxes, support individual households, design and install gardens, and revitalize school gardens and related community projects.

Although some of the efforts were put on hold because of COVID-19, Cloutier said the Happy Lab has had hundreds of students involved with projects all over the Valley and abroad.

“We have also served dozens of individuals, households, organizations and institutions,” he said. “Post-COVID-19, we are just getting back to serving communities and are now focusing on collaborating with organizations addressing food insecurity and those integrating land-based practices.”

ASU student Kate Hartland said working on place-based projects that focus on happiness and connectivity has been incredibly impactful to her, both in her sustainability journey and her personal life.

“This semester, I had the opportunity to create a project that focused on reducing stress, fostering connection and community, and encouraging placemaking for SOS students,” said Hartland, who expects to graduate in May 2022. “Doing this work allowed me to conceive of how to support others in their journey, and it also allowed for my own growth, as well.”

Hartland said she also learned that sustainability is about so much more than she originally thought when she started her masters program.

“I have realized that in order to fix the world’s problems, or take advantage of sustainability opportunities, we must address the challenges we each face within,” she said.

What inspired Cloutier to create the Happy Lab?

“The need for a space to explore our relationship with happiness and how it translates to (un)sustainability,” he said. “More, a place that can be driven by the purpose of promoting happiness and sustainability in service to the communities near our university.”

Cloutier said that Happy Lab projects fundamentally address some of the ways humans pursue happiness that directly diminish natural ecosystems.

Cloutier is confident the Happy Lab and its members will continue to make strides. He continually seeks ways to promote pathways toward sustainability that will enhance overall happiness outcomes.

“The lab is a catalyst for researching methods for and outcomes from integrating and bringing together those beings interested in service-based learning, sustainability and happiness,” he said. “Serving communities and holding space for remembering ways of knowing that more deeply align us to our place in collaboration with nature is what it’s all about.”

See the article on the Wrangler News website here.


Our Vision

The Sustainable Neighborhoods for Happiness Project has a vision for the future.

With the help of approximately 20 undergraduate students per semester, 5 graduate/ Ph.D. students, 3 staff members and numerous volunteers, the Happy Hoods team strives to make the communities we serve amazing places to live. Our short-term vision is to continue working in the community to create and sustain a healthy, happy and cohesive lifestyle – demand for our services is growing. We use inspiration from nature in regenerative design and permaculture. We hope to inspire people to create a lasting and loving relationship with the earth. 

Our medium-term vision (within the next 1-2 years) is to acquire land in a community that will serve as a hub of innovation for our work. The hub will include a home built of sustainable materials and a permaculture showcase for a desert climate. In addition, it will be a collaboration of cultures as will encourage members and residents to express themselves through art in the construction of the hub. We will demonstrate that all residents, regardless of their socioeconomic status, can have equitable access to healthy and nutritious lifestyles. Residents who live nearby will be able to experience alternative healthy lifestyles and can request our services on their property.

In the long-term (3-5 years), we will establish 3-5 hubs in neighborhoods throughout Tempe to serve as examples to local neighborhoods. We hope to employ and offer training to local residents on site, involving anyone who is interested in our work. From there, we can serve as a model for other universities to scale similar efforts in promoting their own local healthy, happy, and sustainable neighborhoods. By spreading this model we could empower communities all over the U.S. and internationally.


Happy Hoods volunteers working diligently to build a garden

volunteers and gardening

Learning from Zapatista Women

By: Sarra Tekola

My research strives to understand and shift Western society so that we are not dependent on exploitation and extraction. So, it is critical I visit places and people who have created new societies to research how they did it. I recently visited the Zapatista community to learn how they changed their values, their ways of treating each other and the land, and how they created independent economies without recreating capitalism. Being indigenous, many of them did not need to unlearn, but rather resist the modern ways of being. However, patriarchy and hierarchy were systems of oppression they did previously struggle with, so I had many questions for them. While at the Zapatistas First International Women’s Gathering, I had the pleasure of talking with several Zapatista women. Due to my limited Spanish, it ended up being more of an interview – I wrote my questions and had a friend translate them. I want to share some of the things I learned and experienced.

The Zapatistas are an autonomous group of indigenous people leading agrarian livelihoods in Mexico. In 1994, they rose up, taking up arms against the government to fight for their own sovereignty. It was the same year NAFTA passed, and the Zapatistas foresaw the economic crisis that would follow when America’s GMO’ed corn flooded the Mexican market. Mexican farmers couldn’t compete. They lost their livelihoods and entire way of life, increasing migration to the United States.

The Zapatistas have essentially formed their own Nation within Mexico. They felt Mexico was on a dangerous neoliberal path and chose to broke away from it. They have their own government, military, banks, economy, food systems, water systems, and waste systems. On top of this, they operate from a non-hierarchal system; there are no leaders, no bosses and no one is famous. This class system is, in part, why they wear ski masks. The masks only reveal their eyes and birth names and identities are not shared. In this way, everyone is equal; even women have become equal.

Zapatista Women

Zapatista Women lined up in their traditional clothes and Zapatista uniform

Zapatista women have actually gone much further in their fight for women equality than we have in the West. This women’s gathering, above, was organized and created by and for only women. The Zapatista women put it on by themselves and Zapatista men supported by cooking food and watching the children. The Zapatista’s gender norms (or lack thereof) were also evident when we asked them what it was like to be a woman Zapatista. They could not answer the question and usually replied with, ‘what do you mean? There is no difference between a woman and man in the Zapatistas’. Work is shared, and the only gender differences they talked about were due more to biological strength differences than anything else.

Zapatista Women1

The women-only speakers on stage getting ready to perform

My visit and time was most eye-opening when I asked about their perspectives of the West. Many of the women I spoke to are farmers from the Global South; they are “Campesinos” whom most international development agencies would consider in need of aid or development (despite the fact that they are self-sufficient and not interested in western development). They replied that they felt bad for us; we were the ones in need of aid because we are oppressed compared to them. We have bosses who tell us what to do and our bosses own the fruits of our labor. We have to work long hours under a boss who dehumanizes us. The rich people and government have taken all the land and we have no space to farm and grow our own food. We do not own our own time so we do not have enough time to spend with our family.

One woman shared, “us Zapatistas are looking for the right formula so that nobody suffers anymore”. She went on to say that they live free without any bosses, free to grow their own food and live their own life without anyone telling them what to do or how to do it. She said she wants everyone in the world to have access to this freedom. She thinks about us in the City and feels bad because we are so exploited. She said the “Zapatistas fight for your freedom too so that you can know freedom like us”.

I was recently reminded of these challenges when I started looking into buying a home.  Having grown up during the economic recession and Occupy, I had a healthy mistrust of banks. I have made a conscious effort to make sure banks won’t control of my life by never taking out a loan or getting a credit card. I have bought every car and large purchase with cash, and don’t purchase things I can’t afford. I even worked and “scholarshipped” through both undergraduate and graduate school. I have vigilantly worked hard to have no debt. But in America, you have to create debt to buy a house or rent, or really do anything big.

I had received a three-year fellowship that gave me the stability mortgage brokers often look for. And, like the Zapatistas, I was tired of having a boss. Living with landlords, I have been harassed for composting, for attempting to grow food on my own property, for having patio furniture, for keeping my bicycle outside, for training and watching dogs at my house, and for letting friends sleep on my couch. I want to be free – I want to own my land so that I can do what I want, the way I want. There are many sustainable modifications that can be made to a house to use fewer resources, but I could not make these modifications because I did not own my own property. How can I be sustainable if I do not even have control of how I live? In order to fulfill my dream of owning my own land, I had to give up some of my freedom to the banks by creating credit and getting debt. This is exactly what the Zapatistas meant when they said you are not free in this system.

I was so shocked and humbled by my experience – it completely turned my worldview around. I thought I was the privileged one, that I had more “freedom” in America than they had in rural Mexico. Maybe they are right, maybe we are the exploited ones? I don’t know much about what is in the food I eat, and don’t have enough land or time to grow my own food. I also don’t own my own time and don’t get to choose how often I see my family and loved ones. Maybe we are the ones who cannot be free in this system.

Indigenous Corn

Indigenous Corn- What corn previously looked like

The Zapatistas have really opened my eyes up to how exploited we are in the West. They are a reminder of why we need new voices and ideas brought to the table in the field of sustainability. The field of sustainability often attempts to put pressure on individual actions, often only pushing for responsible consumerism (which, in my opinion, is an oxymoron). This is, in part, because of who controls the conversation. If it were the Zapatistas leading the conversation on sustainability, they would push for a world where multinational corporations don’t control everyone’s resources. They are striving for a world where all people experience true freedom, where they have time to grow their own food and spend time with family. To me, this is the true intersection of sustainability and happiness.

Food Is Culture

By Chloe Sykes

In recent decades, the world has shifted toward an industrial, globalized food system with significant cultural implications. Food has become a commodity, giving a few top companies significant control. Cultures lose resilience when they are drowned out by decisions that these top food companies can make for us. We have always relied on locally available staples in order to obtain enough food to survive, which has created vibrant food cultures around the world. We define food cultures by the choices we make. If we all eat the same foods the same way, we are susceptible to the same shortages and diseases. We may lose our cultural identity and unique internal balance, diminishing the resilience of humans as a whole.

Cultural wellbeing can be seen as harmony between cultural expression and cultural ignorance. Cultural balance looks different for each individual depending on their background and values, which is also known as cultural diversity. Cultural diversity is an asset and is encompassed in almost everything we do (Hawkes, 2001, p. 24). From art to family dynamics, to mealtimes, culture dictates rules and norms. A system that fosters a healthy food culture is one that allows for consumer choice and connection to nature. Being reintroduced to the idea of food as a miracle of nature rather than a vacuum-packed commodity could spark a resurgence of food cultures. Close-knit networks between producers and consumers put people back in charge.

The globalized system has been introducing consumers to new and interesting foods from all over the world, connecting cultures that otherwise would have remained separate. With the primary focus often being taste, however, the intrinsic value of the food we eat may start to get lost. Because the globalized food system is relatively young, we are still learning about how to best honor and support local cultures for the entirety of what they are rather than simply the tastes they provide. Local food spaces, farms, and farm to table restaurants can bridge the gap between humans and nature, educate consumers about their food sources, establish relationships with farmers, and communicate the inherent beauty of food cultures. Once we have a conducive space for connection and education, the cultural need to make informed food choices can be met.

We can begin this transition by realizing that sustainable thinking starts at a young age. Incorporating nutrition, food sourcing, cooking, and farming practices into education can transform the health and values of children. We need to take on the responsibility of providing students with the knowledge necessary to make food choices that healthy for them, their community, and the environment (Our Work, 2010). By teaching young audiences about the importance of food, local economies, cultural diversity, and the lives of farmers, communities could be brought closer together, food cultures could be strengthened, and mindsets would shift. My vision is for a new generation of humans to have respectful and deep relationships with food. With the right knowledge about food choices, local food, and cultural wellness, they could put our food systems back in balance. There is enormous potential in where we are headed, and with some mindfulness and intention, we can direct our path toward one of resilience and cultural celebration.

Works Cited

Hawkes, J. (2001). Cultural Displays. Retrieved June 28, 2017, from http://www.mch.govt.nz/sites/default/files/cultural_displays_jon_hawkes.pdf

O’Kane, G. (2016). A moveable feast: Contemporary relational food cultures emerging from local food networks. Appetite, 105, 218-231. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2016.05.010

Our Work. (2010). Retrieved July 06, 2017, from http://edibleschoolyard.org/our-work

Rozin, P. (2005). The Meaning of Food in Our Lives: A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Eating and Well-Being. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 37, 107-112. doi:10.1016/s1499-4046(06)60209-1

Dancing Through a World of Connection

By: Erica Berejnoi

When I arrived in Tempe almost two years ago, I knew hardly anyone. I arrived alone with four suitcases containing my adult life. After getting settled, I realized I missed my dance community in Kentucky and considered looking for dance organizations on campus. Within the first week of school, a friend invited me to join him in the Tango Club – I did so even though tango wasn’t my interest; I thought I had nothing to lose. I went that week, the week after, and the weeks thereafter – I was hooked, but also struggled. People often say tango is an elegant dance, but I had a hard time dancing to traditional tango music from the Golden Age in Argentina. Due to my distaste, it was difficult for me to trust my senses and to feel and see what other dancers were experiencing. Yet, something clicked within me toward the end of my first semester: I experienced vulnerability, connection, and trust, all at the same time!

A fellow dancer once shared “dancing tango is like falling in love every 12 minutes.” If you are a dancer, you likely understand what this means. If you are not, I will do my best to describe the experience: when you dance with another person, you are constantly connected to them. The other person can sense your emotions, mood, confidence, and ego; your body cannot lie. You stop using your rational mind and move toward a deep level of connection and feeling. With eyes closed, you know exactly where the other person is moving. Fear melts away as you can fully trust the other person. Tango made me feel loved and part of a community. I was learning the importance of quality and
authentic human connection.

I have reflected deeply on my dancing experiences, while observing day-to- day interactions outside of dance. I am interested in why we need connection and how we lose connection with one another. We have evolved to avoid threats and welcome opportunities. [1] Our internal bias for security promotes a desire for safe social environments [2] as we simultaneously seek connections to fulfill emotional, intellectual, and physical pleasures. We are social beings that need to feel part of a group. [3]

We can fulfill our need for social connection not only by interacting with other humans, but also by trying to connect with plants, animals, elements of nature, and our inner selves. Opportunities for connection are everywhere, but we may not see or take advantage of them. Failing to fulfill our biological and social needs for connection may cause feelings of loneliness, which can have detrimental consequences. “Loneliness not only alters behavior but shows up in measurements of stress hormones, immune function, and cardiovascular function. Over time, these changes in physiology are compounded in ways that may be hastening millions of people to an early grave.” 4 A lack of social connection may create mental and emotional unrest, and negatively affect physical health and our ability to perform, as well.

I grew up in South America, where we did not use cell phones and knocked on doors to call our friends to play. Times have changed, and many people today are missing a culture of connection. The spread of communication technology and the rise of a fast-paced society are some of the drivers. We demand more of ourselves than what we can sustainably give, sometimes sacrificing our relationships for more time at work. This may lead to feelings of loneliness and other emotional problems. As a result, we create a cycle of disconnection.

Human connection is what allows societies, cultures, and nations to keep moving. Yet, connection is a gift that we give to or receive from others. Empathy, care, authenticity, reciprocity, and love are some of the “items” inside that gift. These items are essential to developing meaningful connections and inner balance. That connection will allow us to fulfill our biological and social needs. Just as I received a gift of connection in my first semester of tango, I want to pass that gift onto you and invite you to be a participant in authentic and meaningful connection with those around you. It takes courage to take that first step, but once you do it, you will have a completely new experience of connection – one that is deep and powerful. Once you are there, you will be able to pass that gift onto somebody else to dance through a world of vulnerability, connection, and trust.

1. Nesse, R. M. (2004). Natural selection and the elusiveness of happiness. Philosophical
Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 359(1449), 1333-1347.
doi: 10.1098/rstb.2004.1511
2. MacDonald, Geoff, & Leary, Mark R. (2005). Why Does Social Exclusion Hurt? The Relationship
Between Social and Physical Pain. Psychological Bulletin, 131(2), 202-223. ISSN: 0033-2909
3. Eisenberger, N. (2003). Does Rejection Hurt? An fMRI Study of Social Exclusion. Science,
302(5643), 290-292. doi: 10.1126/science.1089134
4. Cacioppo, J. T., & Patrick, W. (2008). Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social
connection. WW Norton & Company.