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Paula Francis, in pursuit of happiness
Paula Francis
Paula Francis is walking across the U.S. asking them about happiness for the Gross National Happiness project. Read

Paula Francis walked into The Platteville Journal office Monday morning to discuss happiness.

Francis could be said, to use the words of one of the three certain unalienable rights listed in the Declaration of Independence, to be in the pursuit of happiness — that is, what the word “happiness” means to Americans.

Francis is part of an organization called Gross National Happiness USA (, whose goal is “increasing personal happiness and our collective wellbeing by changing how we measure progress and success.” Francis puts it as “creating conditions in our society that raise people up.”

Over the last seven years, Francis has been walking around the U.S. — “I make a plan, and then I kind of let things happen” — interviewing people about what they believe happiness is and is not, in search of common values that can be part of governmental policy discussions.

“Most people want the same things out of life,” said Francis. “People want to be happy — that’s the ultimate goal for most people. But we have to understand what that means.”

What does that mean?

“One of the things that really matter is our family and our social communities … taking care of each other,” she said, along with “our faith — having the understanding that there is something greater than ourselves.”

What does that not mean?

“People don’t say money and things,” she said. “And yet we are so focused on gross domestic product, which measures commerce and stuff. What people are saying is it does not matter.

“We’ve been led to believe that we’re so different, that people think differently than I think. But I think once we can hear how alike we are, we can have meaningful conversations about what matters in life. Asking a question about well-being brings the question of what really does matter. We need to reflect on that question to know what we really want in life.”

Faith was the one dimension that surprised Francis. “People might express their faith differently in different meanings, but the concept of the golden rule, the higher self, is incredibly consistent,” she said.

As of last week, Francis had walked 8,325 miles and conducted 2,741 interviews, walking part of the year over the past seven years. Her 2019 walking, which started in May, is scheduled to end in Boston Nov. 2.

Francis’ 10,000-mile walk started in Vermont, from where, she said, “I’ve given up my home and things, and I’m making the road my home. … Conversations with people were so inspiring and rich that I just kept building the walk year after year.”

Gross National Happiness measures nine “domains of measurement,” including psychological wellbeing, standard of living and material wellbeing, good governance, health, education, community vitality, cultural diversity and resilience, balanced time use, and ecological diversity.

National unhappiness, so to speak, comes in such statistics as a claim that “about half of all Americans live in low-income situations and/or in poverty,” the U.S. infant mortality rate (which the group claims is 48th highest among 193 countries in the world, although the World Atlas reports the rate is 169th highest out of 223 countries), the percentage of Americans in prison, seven of 10 Americans taking prescription drugs, and the number of people who die worldwide of air pollution-related causes.

“Beyond our personal happiness is how we create societal well-being,” said Francis. “What’s also clear is people feel we need to be more unified, be kind to each other, more respectful to each other.”

Francis believes one reason that isn’t the case now is politics.

“It’s driven a lot by greed and selfishness — the very values people are saying they would like to see dissipate,” she said. “When they say unity, they’re not saying I want people to unify along my views — let’s talk. We’re people that can talk.”

Social media is “helpful in a lot of ways,” she said, “but it gets in the way of authentic conversation. People are much more aware of how skewed the media can be.”

The group’s website reports that Maryland and Vermont have adopted, and other states are moving toward, the Genuine Progress Indicator, which measures progress, or lack thereof, in social, environmental and economic areas. The United Nations established March 20 as the International Day of Happiness. Canada has the Canadian Index of Well-Being. The New Economics Foundation created the Happy Planet Index, which ranks the U.S. 108th of 140 countries.

“It’s just taken a little longer to catch on here,” said Francis.

The Organization for Economic and Community Development has a Better Life Index that allows users to rank issues — housing, income, jobs, community, education, environment, civic engagement, health, life satisfaction, safety and work–life balance — by their own rating of importance. (The website reports that Americans measure their general satisfaction with life at 6.9 on a 0-to-10 scale, higher than the world average of 6.5.)

“We have the capability to address these social issues and environmental issues,” said Francis. “But what we need is will.”

The group is seeking people to sign the Charter for Happiness, titled “Making Happiness Our Bottom Line,” at It is also promoting Happiness Dinners for International Day of Happiness March 20.