Tuesday, April 5, 2011

SOMERVILLE IN THE NEWS: City Measures Happiness as a Path to Better Public Policy

We hope you filled out the City’s Well-Being and Community Survey that was sent out with the Census forms in January (if not, see below for how to take part). We’re barely finished collecting survey forms, but already the Christian Science Monitor highlighted our effort with a thoughtful article (read the story by clicking here).

Somerville is the first U.S. city to survey resident life satisfaction as a way to better inform public policy. But the approach is gaining interest overseas, with Britain and France leading the way. The idea behind it is simple: we need to broaden our definition of what makes for good policy. Currently, most governments rely on economic activity (gross domestic product) as the main indicator of their effectiveness. But an increasing number of policy makers and researchers point out that other factors including happiness should also be considered. (Here’s an interesting article on happiness and public policy from The New Yorker.)

Here’s one way that might work: Development can bring economic productivity and tax revenues (seen as good), but also traffic jams (which cause unhappiness). Keeping both in mind, a city pursuing new development should also plan to alleviate traffic (such as building near public transportation). But while this thinking is obvious enough that no survey is needed, well-being surveys can help policy makers take into account the many less obvious factors that affect happiness.

“This is another example of how Somerville tries to stay on the leading edge of governmental innovation. We really do care about the well-being of our residents and, with the help of this survey, if there is something we can identify that would improve the well-being of our residents, then we will pursue that,” said Mayor Joe Curtatone.

Tara Acker, Director of SomerStat, further explained, “We’re a city that makes decisions based on data, but we need the right data to better understand how to improve life-quality for residents. This year is a baseline survey. As we conduct surveys each year, we’ll get an increasingly clear picture of what impacts resident well-being and we’ll use that data to inform policy and start conversations about policy with residents.”

Internationally renowned happiness researcher Daniel Gilbert, a professor of Psychology at Harvard University and best-selling author of Stumbling on Happiness, partnered with the City to create the survey (he is providing his services to the City at no cost). Results should be available early this summer.

How to participate: Surveys will be accepted until June 1 and are completely anonymous. To download a survey, click here. Or request one by emailing dtaylor [at] somervillema.gov. Please mail your completed survey to City of Somerville, Census Office, City Hall, 93 Highland Avenue, Somerville, MA 02143-1740, or drop it at one of the 15 Census Drop Boxes located throughout the city (click here for locations).

P.S. Did you know that “Research shows that people who participate in political activities such as voting are happier than those who don’t,” according to the The New Yorker.


  1. I'm no Libertarian, but I received the survey and did not like the government asking me these personal questions. How I'm feeling at the moment is none of the government's business.

  2. Prof Gilbert's "Stumbling on Happiness" study found that distraction or day dreaming CAUSES unhappiness. Is this notion considered? Apparently not because distraction or day dreaming is not measured in the survey questionnaire.


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