The Fuzzy (Warm) Science of a City's Happiness

Positive psychology stakes a foothold in Cleveland, proving this really is a happy place after all

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That, in turn, is a recipe for happiness among residents and visitors alike. There's an inherent cultural desire to be here.

The external world - the vast expanse out there - might not always glom onto the hope on the ground in Cleveland. Forbes magazine, for example, slapped Cleveland with a spot on the list of the 20 most miserable cities in the country. We in town collectively shrugged, let out a quick insult in some cases and moved on with our lives. For Forbes' part, the magazine lists Cleveland's mass population exodus as the lone criterion for this notion of miserable living. It's a notion, of course, that gets spread around the national discourse all too easily.

When Scene reached out to readers via social media to ask about the general happiness of our city, one reader proffered a resounding "hell naw."

And you can certainly find that jaded sentiment on the back end of any (fairly unclever) Cleveland punchline, but it's a surface-level assumption that does little to actually consider what's going on in town.

Take for example, an interactive project hosted last fall. Bedecked with holiday lighting, a map of the greater Cleveland area loomed in front of onlookers during last year's Ingenuity Fest. A simple, understated header reads: "Plotting Emotional Space in Cleveland, Ohio." As each person approached the map, they were handed a yellow pin and a white pin.

"Place the yellow pin on a place where you feel happy. Place the white pin on a place where you feel sad."

Ashley Perry, a Clevelander studying psychology at The New School in New York City, devised the project to transpose the importance of place onto the idea of happiness and sadness.

It's not entirely surprising that yellow pins congregated along the lakeshore, along tree-lined suburban side streets and along the thoroughfares of downtown Cleveland. White pins dotted East Cleveland and the ghost town ruins of some of the region's more outlying cities. (Yes, Parma was heavily represented in the "white pin" category.) Downtown, for that matter, also garnered plenty of white pins, too.

Far from our lakeshore - on the other side of the world, in fact - the residents of a small, landlocked country in southern Asia are proffering a rather novel worldview. In Bhutan, leaders and countrymen alike espouse an idea - a metric - called Gross National Happiness.

It's the paradigm shift that people like Ricchiuto and Alloro are kicking around locally.

"I believe that more and more people in Cleveland have turned the corner and realized that focusing primarily on economic indicators does not change the conversation," he says. "The reality is that more and more people are talking about quality of life - about culture, sustainability and community as indicators as of well-being."

It's an idea that's catching on in other parts of the world and in other cities - even in the U.S. Ricchiuto cautions that top-down leadership attitudes are treacherous things. So it's not terribly surprising that the groundswell of support of ideas like, say, the Gross National Happiness or something similar are coming from the grassroots arenas of a given community.

"A lot of the change we're seeing is bubbling up from the edges," Ricchiuto says

Alloro has fashioned a chart that demonstrates the ripple effect of positive thought. Once an individual begins shifting his or her perspective, the effect flows outward to one's family, organization, community and, inevitably, the world. Positive thought, Alloro says, is leadership at its heart.

Part of what makes the sensation of a Cleveland renaissance so valid is the long-term reaction to the city's post-industrial life. As industry moved on out of town, the city and region began to decay and rot. The sense of purpose that once drove Cleveland was mostly gone. In modern parlance, one might say that Cleveland had a bit of a branding problem for the latter half of the 20th century. In some ways, maybe we still do. So what's next? "I think it's emerging now," Alloro says.

It's a thought that osmotically seeps into realms of business, economic development, art, technology - the bevy of fields in which Clevelanders excel time and time again.

"The main idea is that when people are happier, they're more likely to become courageous and to seek new things. You have a more entrepreneurial spirit. And you certainly see that in Cleveland," Ricchiuto says.

A line can be drawn from John D. Rockefeller's earnest beginnings to the present day. Cleveland, as the Industrial Revolution was stirring -- a bit like the Silicon Valley of its day. So the question at the doorstep of 2013 is: Into what realm of possibilities will our positive energy flow next?

"I think Cleveland is going to show the world something," Alloro says.

About The Author

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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