Getting happier by the minute

On March 22, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

mayor_webBy Joseph A. Curtatone

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)

Last year, Somerville became the first city in the United States to measure residents’ happiness as a way to more fully understand how municipal government can better serve our constituents, and create policies that reflect resident satisfaction with those policies.

Following in the footsteps of countries like Bhutan and France, we partnered with Harvard University Psychology Professor, Daniel Gilbert, to issue our first-ever Happiness Survey, designed to help us collect data to shape those policy discussions, aligning residents’ needs and city services to our overarching goal of making Somerville a great place to live, work, play and raise a family.

I have always suspected that residents of Somerville are happier than the average citizen.  Somervillians are proud of their city, they are engaged and connected, and it is reflected in the number of times people tell me how happy they are to live in a hip, vibrant community. Everything we do in Somerville is aligned around that one orienting value, and it’s working. If you were to develop a momentum index for communities in Massachusetts, taking into account all the improvements we’ve made, all of the improvements to come, the activity in our city squares, the gains made by our school system, our increasing green and recreational space, Somerville would be off the charts in first place. There’s nothing like us right now.

In the last several years, we have been lauded by a variety of reputable new sources and national agencies as one of the best place to live and, based on the results of the original Happiness Survey, it has a lot to do with the fact that, on average, residents are extremely happy with their city and the direction we’re headed.

We know that our inclusive approach to government is working. What we want to understand is how our policies affect subjective happiness, whether programs like our increasing our tree canopy or Zero Sort Recycling have any bearing on why individuals and family choose to move to, and remain in our city. But how can you even measure something like happiness, a lot of people ask, and why does City Hall want to know? What does it matter that Somerville residents ranked themselves 7.7 out of 10 on our “Happiness Scale?”

It matters because governments can learn a lot about the relationship between policy and wellbeing simply by asking. As Professor Gilbert put it, “Social policies are always meant to promote things that promote happiness, so how could it be a bad idea to measure directly the very thing you are trying to maximize?”

When we initiate a new program, or build a park, we hope that it will ultimately make people happier, creating a ripple effect in the community in terms of resident happiness, home values, and the overall structure of our community. I have argued that you cannot govern a city by only paying attention to its bond rating, or what is contained in the four corners of its budget document. Metrics like borrowing capacity and crime rates per capita are important, but they only tell part of the story. Happiness data help us fill in the picture by giving a more reliable estimate of how our policies and programs impact wellbeing.

Countries all over the world are recognizing the importance of measuring happiness, from Bhutan to the UK’s happiness index. Surprisingly, though, many U.S. cities are slow to follow suit. When we made the front page of the Sunday New York Times simply by sending out a citywide survey, I thought other mayors would insist on their own happiness indices. Really, what is the purpose of a government if not to enhance the wellbeing of the public?  We are public servants, and we should be focused on making your life better. As evidenced by the original study, most respondents feel we are moving in the right direction.

But we’re not done. As we continue to learn and grow along with our ever changing and expanding resident base, we must also adapt our policies and programs to reflect their changing needs to maintain quality of life.  Which is why, as many residents may already have noticed, we are again collecting data this year.  The difference is that we now have a benchmark by which we can measure change. Based on resident input and feedback in our initial survey, new questions will focus on detailed information affecting happiness, such as “How safe do you feel in your neighborhood?” for example.  We want to truly understand how our policies affect daily life in our neighborhoods and squares. We want to understand where we might better allocate resources to achieve citywide goals and ideals. We want our residents to feel that they have a stake in their community, and how it operates.

Make no mistake, this is not just about putting a number on people’s emotions. As one former ruler of Bhutan once said, “Gross national happiness is more important that gross domestic product.”  We hope to prove that.

Ultimately, I hope other cities follow our lead. We won’t really be able to say if our residents are happier than average until places like Cambridge and Boston perform their own surveys. Until that happens, I will just have to rely on my intuition.

We are the happiest city in the country. Who can tell us otherwise?


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