Working with Emotions
Quantifying Life Quality
The City of Somerville is using a novel approach to understanding how its residents measure their life satisfaction.
How happy do you feel right now?
If you live in Somerville, officials want to know. In fact, they want their city to be the first in the U.S. to systematically track people’s happiness. This spring, along with the city’s census forms, residents received a questionnaire asking them to rate their happiness on a scale from one to 10. So far, more than 7,500 people have mailed back the survey.
The city asked Dr. Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University internationally recognized for his research on happiness, to guide them through the process of creating the survey. Gilbert, who donated his time, is also helping the city do a more detailed telephone survey, using a randomized sample of Somerville’s 76,000 residents.
The survey asked people to rate aspects of their communities—the police, the schools, the availability of affordable housing—as well as the physical setting of Somerville.
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,” she says. “Now we want to look beyond those factors to understand more subjective variables.” She explained these 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 the city’s 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.”
Curatone says the city hopes this will be 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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