Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Happiness and Data: Somerville's Well-Being Survey

We here at SomerStat/ResiStat have been working on a city-wide survey of well being, which will ask some unique questions about happiness. We were fortunate to receive the help of Daniel Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard and renowned expert on the subject of affective forecasting (people's ability to predict and measure the sorts of things that will make them happy). Like other governments, we hope this data will give us a more complete view of the state of our city. You can see the complete press release after the break:

Somerville to Survey Community About Well-Being

New Survey Seeks to Gauge Quality-of-Life Indicators

SOMERVILLE – The City of Somerville is launching a new effort to understand how its residents measure their quality of life. In a city-wide survey set to be released in late January, analysts from the City have teamed with academic researchers to question residents on their well-being. Results from the survey, coupled with existing surveys, will help guide the City’s policies and procedures.

Using a novel approach, which is currently being explored by governments in France and Britain, Somerville's survey will provide data about the perspective of Somerville residents and their life satisfaction. With assistance from Daniel Gilbert, a professor of Psychology at Harvard University who is internationally recognized for his research on happiness, Somerville will become the first community in the United States to undertake this approach. Research on the subject in Europe has helped focus policy making decisions more directly on quality of life issues.  

According to Tara Acker, Director of the City’s SomerStat program, the idea is to use data from the survey to gain a more holistic view of city services.

“Through previous community outreach, particularly the City’s ResiStat program, we have a good understanding of the political and economic condition of Somerville. Now we want to look beyond those factors to understand more subjective variables,” which, she explained, will include “measures of happiness, and even how residents rate the aesthetic quality of the City.”

Pairing survey results with other data, Somerville hopes to gain new policy insights. “It makes sense to think about the broad picture,” said Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone, “and my administration has always pursued policies that improve residents’ well-being. Particularly in difficult economic climates, we strive to ensure the best quality of life for our community members, including the accurate, courteous and efficient delivery of services. At the end of the day, making life better for the people who live and work in this city is our primary job.”  

Mayor Curtatone added that Somerville is fortunate to be able to work with an esteemed partner in Professor Gilbert, whose book Stumbling on Happiness is a New York Times bestseller.  “The idea that governments can and should measure well-being is new and innovative, and I’m honored that Professor Gilbert has offered to guide us through this process with his expertise,” said Mayor Curtatone.

The City will look to make this the first in a series of surveys on well-being. With Britain’s recent announcement of a nationwide “well-being index,” Somerville may be part of a growing movement to use such data to inform public policy.

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Michael Meehan 617-625-6600, ext. 2620
Jaclyn Rossetti 617-625-6600, ext. 2614


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Great question. We know this is a tough fiscal year, so we found a way to do this survey on an extremely tight budget. Professor Gilbert was kind enough to donate his help, and the surveys will be sent along with census forms (thereby eliminating postage). The data we anticipate collecting will be more than worth it.


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