Happiness and Dirt

By: Jason Tibbetts

Scientists are discovering the link between happiness and dirt. That’s right, getting your hands into some dirt can mean more happiness. Why? Well, apparently there’s a little critter in the dirt known as Mycobacterium vaccae that has similar effects on the human brain as Prozac and other pharmaceuticals but without the negative side effects and chemical dependency. This little bacterium stimulates serotonin production which helps to decrease agitation, anxiety and increase overall happiness. Huh! So, for thousands of years, humans have been domesticating and planting crops, digging wells and canals, digging for minerals, digging to catch animals, digging to make shelters, roads, fields, and fence posts, digging, digging, digging. It’s no wonder that our human habits of churning the earth’s crust have continued unabated into our modern era despite all of our newly developed technology and sophistication!

As a bonus, the effect of the bacteria not only lowers stress and improves mood and vitality, but cognitive function and concentration is improved as well. It gets better! M vaccae has demonstrated anti-mutagenic properties useful in preventing cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease, and in boosting our immune system. Dirt particles may come in direct contact with the blood stream through a cut or abrasion during gardening activities. The means of absorbing the bacteria may or may not matter, but the effects of the contact may last up to three weeks! The testimony that the act of gardening does relieve stress is true – no surprise for some of us.

My kids (ages 5, 3, and 1) recently went to visit their Nanna, Granddad and cousins. Long-term landscape construction resulted in a huge, unavoidable, glorious mound of soil piled in the front yard. There was even a muddy spot next door where a small tree had been removed. My kids played in the dirt and mud and, soon enough, pure filthiness ensued. They discovered that if you pack the dirt just right, you can scoot yourself from the top of the mound to the bottom, face first, as if on the world’s greatest slide. There was dirt in hair, mouths, and little jean pockets.  So, take some advice from my kids. If you want to be happy, make sure to get in a healthy dose of dirt before your bath!



Grant, B. L. (2017, March 27). Soil Microbes And Human Health – Learn About The Natural Antidepressant In Soil. Retrieved February 11, 2018, from https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/garden-how-to/soil-fertilizers/antidepressant-microbes-soil.htm

It’s in the Dirt! Bacteria in soil may make us happier, smarter. (2011, January). Retrieved February 11, 2018, from http://www.healinglandscapes.org/blog/2011/01/its-in-thedirtbacteria-in-soil-makes-us-happier-smarter/



Between Love, Happiness and Sustainability


Everyone wants to be loved, because, ultimately, everyone wants to be happy. This is the fundamental truth that I have been discovering over the past year. Love is what moves the world. Love is what makes my kids rise to their full potential when I assured them they have a piece of my heart, and love is what they will share with others. Love is also what oppressors crave when they tyrannize their people; they want to be loved by any means, either by captivating hearts or capturing fearful eyes. Everyone wants to be loved, because love guarantees happiness.

Over the last decade, the idea of happiness has been pouring all around us, and even countries like Bhutan, have implemented, in their constitution, the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH). This is an approach/ philosophy that redirects the government’s focus from economic growth to collective happiness. The GNH, like other holistic philosophies I have studied, emphasizes harmony with nature and traditional values (Ura et al., 2012). But when we think about countries with a strong focus on their citizens’ happiness, we conceive this as a limitation to their economic growth and development (Cloutier, Jambeck, & Scott, 2014); for us, economic progress is the path to achieving happiness. However, this understanding of happiness is problematic, because we correlate happiness to material consumption and the exploitation of natural and social resources. And this path to “happiness” creates unsustainable individuals and societies.

Today, in our pursuit of love and happiness, we have managed to disconnect ourselves from our real needs for love, nature, and harmony. Although we are a social species by nature, our social isolation has been growing in part due to new technologies and our economic system. Technological advances replaced outdoor activities and physical partners, and our capitalist ideals removed cultural practices in the name of progress. And thus, today we have given birth to children that do not see the imperative in caring for and relying on others, hindering their capacity to live a healthy, happy life. Consequently, depression levels have increased, diseases are rampant and cared for in isolation. Trust has become scarce, and personal space keeps expanding while we perish in our illusion of unsustainable, material happiness.

But if we put aside our consumerist behaviors, our economic greed, and individualism, we can engage in a sustainable and happy world (Corral-Verdugo et al., 2011). There is a strong correlation between sustainability and happiness (O’Brien, 2013). Studies have shown that sustainability behaviors such as pro-ecological, frugality, and altruism can also promote a state of psychological restoration (De Youong, 1991; Iwata, 2000; Corral-Verdugo et al., In press). In other words, a state free of stressors that make us unhappy (Corral-Verdugo et al., 2011). Then, if sustainability is relevant not only to the well-being of our planet but also to our happiness, we found our golden ticket. Like O’Brien (2013) says “Happiness, meet sustainability; Sustainability, meet happiness.” In this couple, we have the tools to promote a healthy and joyful society. We have the tools to create connections based on altruism, mindfulness, and ultimately love, love for ourselves, for others, and love for all living organisms in this world. Once we achieve love, sustainability will be a norm and happiness our everyday.



Cloutier, S., Jambeck, J., & Scott, N. (2014). The Sustainable Neighborhoods for Happiness Index (SNHI): A metric for assessing a community’s sustainability and potential influence on happiness. Ecological Indicators, 40, 147–152. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolind.2014.01.012

Corral-Verdugo, V., Mireles-Acosta, J., Tapia-Fonllem, C., & Fraijo-Sing, B. (2011). Happiness as correlate of sustainable behavior: A study of pro-ecological, frugal, equitable and altruistic actions that promote subjective wellbeing. Human Ecology Review, 18(2), 95–104. https://doi.org/10.3390/su5020711

De Young. R. (1991). Some psychological aspects of living lightly: Desired lifestyle patterns and conservation behavior. Journal of Environmen- tal Systems, 20, 2\5-2

Iwata. 0. (2001). Attitudinal determinants of environmentally responsible behavior. Social Behavior and Personality, 29, 183-190

O’Brien, C. (2013). Happiness and sustainability together at last! Sustainable happiness. Canadian Journal of Education, 36(4), 228–256.

Ura, K., Alkire, S., Zangmo, T., & Wangdi, K. (2012). An Extensive Analysis of GNH Index. The Centre for Bhutan Studies.

The Jubilee Project: Social Change Gamification of Urban Sustainability Initiatives Via a Well Being Lens

By Robert Barton

Over the past year, I have been learning and practicing community organizing and science communication in order to develop some fresh approaches to sustainability communication. Issues like climate change or renewable energy can elicit knee-jerk reactions from individuals and policy makers in today’s social and political climate. For my project, my goal was to develop a discussion tool that would facilitate an authentic engagement with these issues using a happiness framing.

With today’s myriad of media that bombard people on a daily basis, we are often over stimulated with information and content, and selective listening can serve to further distance us from people with differing perspectives on the world. Indeed, there are already many books, movies, and papers about sustainability and happiness out there for the people who are looking for them. But what about people who haven’t discovered sustainability, yet still feel the effects of these systems?

With this project, I was interested in creating new forms of engagement and expression that would inspire discussion and provoke thought in people around urban sustainability issues. I considered writing a series of short stories as well as curating a “well city” arts exhibition. Yet, I wanted an educational tool that allowed people to participate and skill build as well. And, it needed to be fun. After all, as Seattle community organizer Jim Diers says, “Why have a meeting when you can have a party?”

So, I channeled my knowledge of games and gamification into the design of a game around urban happiness titled Jubilee. Much like sustainability project teams, the game is designed for 3-5 players, each of whom takes on a different role in the fictional city setting. While it functions as entertainment on the surface, players also practice critical sustainability skills during play like considering tradeoffs, group decision making, managing uncertainty, and commons management.

In order to create this tool, I distilled the many pages of research I have done about urban sustainability, well being, and concepts of “the good life” (Buen Vivir for those in South America) into a collection of Action cards and gameplay dynamics that enable the players to take a selection of actions in order to improve the city. I hand drew 92 of these cards, and used colored pencils and stamps to put together some of the other aesthetic elements of the game. You can take a look at the finished game set in the picture below.

While I don’t have the space to detail the whole game concept and rules here, the basic idea is that players work together to complete initiatives, avert bad outcomes, negotiate deals, and persuade supporters to join them in their quest to make the city one of the happiest in the world. In order to do this, they must gather and trade resources, manage their character’s health and social influence, collectively work to boost the city’s community health meters, and finally accumulate happiness points.

After finishing with the game design and prototype building a few weeks ago, I have been playtesting it with various groups of people. This has allowed me to iron out the rules, balance the game a little better, and solicit suggestions or other reactions about the game. Most of the response has been encouraging and insightful, and I’m excited to continue to carry the game with me to reach new audiences.

My favorite part of the game is the discussions about happiness that ensue during and after the gaming session. While players are usually focused on their next move, they also begin to remark on the Action Cards or the game set up in a way that opens up the door to a discussion about what makes for a happy life and a habitat for happiness in the city. This is great because it gives me (as a player) the chance to talk about sustainability without running the overused gauntlet of environmental stereotypes about tree hugging and polar bears.

As an educational and outreach tool, Jubilee has the potential to motivate many people to act to strengthen and enhance their local communities and municipalities. Each of the Action Cards provide real initiatives that people can generate to do this. Also, while the game centers on a generic city in the “developed” world, it could definitely be adapted to play in a larger city like Mumbai or a smaller “underdeveloped” one in the Global South. I imagine its reach going into classrooms, workplaces, policy boardrooms, and community centers as people vision, discuss, plan, and work for happier, more sustainable futures.

Want to play? Have a suggestion? Feel free to contact me at <rbarton3@asu.edu>. While I currently have only made one prototype set, my plan is to continue to build and expand this tool for a variety of audiences.

Chapter House: A Sustainable Vision Using Traditional Ecological Knowledge

By Paul Prosser

Many indigenous groups lived on the North American continent before colonization by European people. According to archeologists, a group of Athabaskans migrated from the northern plains to what is now known as the Four Corners region of the southwestern United States, four to six hundred years ago. These people were the ancestors of the Navajo. From the mid-1600s to the late 1800s European settlers transitioned from émigrés to the dominant culture on the North American continent. Through direct and indirect means Euro-Americans embarked on a schizophrenic process of both assimilation and elimination of indigenous people. Traditional Navajo culture was dissembled and diminished by removal of self-governance structures, forced relocations, and cultural erasure. Now impoverished and dysfunctional from years of cultural battery, opportunities for happiness on the geographically isolated Navajo reservation are limited.

Against this historical backdrop, the Tonalea Chapter of the Navajo Nation invited our ASU team to assist them in planning for replacement for their condemned chapter house (community center). Knowing that the opportunities for improving conditions within their community are rare, and funds for operations and maintenance scarce, the community wanted a sustainable building that not only addressed economics but local ecological constraints and cultural heritage as well.

Foundations for a Vision
The team met with chapter leaders and community members on two occasions to collaboratively discuss the cultural, ecological and economic components for a sustainable building. Most of the time the team listened to participants’ stories and narratives about the history and beliefs of the Diné (Navajo for people). Most poignant were stories about the “long walks” that forcibly relocated the people from their homeland, and the US government’s labyrinthine approval process for repairing homes on Hopi and Navajo disputed land. Of great interest to the team was the traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) the stakeholders shared with us about their connections with the land. The Diné are herders and farmers who rely upon natural precipitation, surface water collection, and pasture rotation to grow crops and raise sheep. Local plants are used for remedies and ceremonies. And, the hogan (traditional residence) is organized in specific ways for family activities and community meetings. The entrance is always on the east side of the building and the fireplace is in the center. As visitors enter the structure they are greeted by leaders seated on the west side, while groups who counsel leaders sit to the north and south. Hearing this stakeholder feedback, our team hypothesized, that the use of TEK could lead to increased wellbeing (happiness) within the chapter.

After writing down these stories and requirements, I sorted through and categorized them according to Nathan Houde’s 1 six faces of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) – Spirituality; Culture and Identity; Time Perspectives; Management of Ecosystems; Land, and; Design Interventions. Not surprisingly, many elements we discussed did not fit neatly within the categories, so we created an eight-category list that renamed some of the six and added two more to become what we dubbed the TEK8 – Culture, Spirituality, Ecosystem, Time Scale, Land, Design, Social Justice & Equity, and Economics. We added the dimensions of Social Justice & Equity, and Economics because they are important factors that affect the sustainability of indigenous people, especially the long-term aftereffects of colonization. 

TEK as a basis for a sustainable vision
As we analyzed the categories, themes emerged from the comment data. In the cultural dimension, preserving history and the Navajo language, as well as the Navajo principle of Hózhó (balance as a way of being), were frequently referenced. Maintaining links between Navajo’s physical and spiritual worlds, and recognizing Mother Earth as the source for everything were important Spiritual themes. The Economics category had more pragmatic themes like, fostering entrepreneurship, finding opportunities for job training and job creation, and developing revenue streams for building operations and maintenance. As an architect, I was especially interested in the themes from the Land and Design categories. Ideas like living harmoniously and in direct connection with the land, and organizing the building’s entry sequence to mimic hogan design, lent specific direction about spatial orientation and the use of local materials to the chapter house building and site design.

From these narratives and themes I made recommendations for the design of the new chapter house. The idea of building a language laboratory in the building to teach the Navajo language to children, and making room for historical displays, came directly from the cultural themes of preserving language and history. Using local stone and earth as building materials addressed the value that all things come from Mother Earth. I also recommended using the building as a catalyst for entrepreneurial activities and job training opportunities. Local people could work on the project and be trained in the production, installation, and maintenance of “green” materials and systems. Others could be trained as green building managers who optimize and maintain “green” building system and operations. Entrepreneurs could team up with locals to create businesses serving local people, or attracting tourists, through a physical presence at the chapter house.

Next Steps in Visioning
All of these activities and outcomes are a good start to creating a sustainable building that expresses the culture of the Tonalean Chapter of the Navajo Nation. However, to create a sustainable, relevant, coherent and legitimate vision for the project, more work is required. To that end we proposed the following steps:

1. Develop a comprehensive visioning process, participatory methods, and quantitative and qualitative metrics for success.
2. Execute a comprehensive visioning process.
3. Evaluate the vision against quantitative and qualitative visioning criteria.
4. Conduct comment periods and stakeholder survey to confirm visions through consensus.
5. Document visioning process, methods, and outcomes.
6. Hand off visioning documents to a design team selected by the chapter.
7. Create a collaborative process between the visioning team and the design team to monitor design decisions, provide clarification and mediate tradeoffs that come up in the design process.
8. Review design for compliance with project vision. Revise as needed 2.

To create a vision that incorporated TEK and western science we suggested that the vision be crafted using both Lee’s 3 Native American visioning perspective, and Wiek & Iwaniec’s 4 ten quality criteria for sustainable visions. By using both visioning frameworks, a more comprehensive and sustainable outcome is possible, and opportunities for happiness may be increased.

Although this project was interrupted, by circumstances beyond our control, we are hopeful that this application of TEK increases the acceptability of sustainable solutions. The use TEK is not a panacea for solving sustainability challenges, especially beyond the location from which specific TEK originates.  However, TEK may be seen as a type of knowledge that is not confined to homogenous indigenous groups. Urban neighborhoods, or heterogeneous communities may have traditional knowledge specific to that place that can be useful in the implementation of sustainable solutions. And as me and some of my colleagues at the Happy Lab may argue, traditional knowledge, whenever and wherever it is uncovered, may increase opportunities for happiness.

1.     Houde, N. (2007). The six faces of traditional ecological knowledge: challenges and opportunities for Canadian co-management arrangements. Ecology and Society, 12(2), 34.
2.     Prosser, P. & Cloutier, S., (2015) Chapter House: Vision for a Sustainable Future. In P. Kraeger, S. Cloutier, & C. Talmage (Eds.), New Scholars Quality of Life Studies (In Review)
3.     Lee, L. L. (2014). Diné Political Leadership Development on the Path to sustainability and Building the Navajo Nation. Wicazo Sa Review, 29(2), 25-38
4.    Wiek, A., & Iwaniec, D. (2014). Quality criteria for visions and visioning in sustainability science. Sustainability Science, 9(4), 497-51