Somerville, Mass., aims to boost happiness. Can it?
Forget GDP, say a growing number of cities and nations. Instead, they're measuring happiness and hope to increase it.
The city that brought America Marshmallow Fluff is at it again. This time, Somerville, Mass., hopes to lead its residents – and, by extension, America – to greater happiness.Skip to next paragraph
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In February, the Boston suburb included a life-satisfaction survey in the annual census form it mailed to its 80,000 residents. Question No. 2: "How satisfied are you with your life in general?"
If this sounds a little fluffy, it's actually part of a growing effort by cities and nations – from Bhutan to Brazil – to measure their citizens' well-being. The data are too new to know if governments can measure happiness – or if they can, what they can do to improve it. Still, the fact that more and more governments are asking suggests widening concern that societies, while richer, may not be happier.
"Despite the fact that incomes have risen, and GDP [gross domestic product] has risen, happiness in the US is as flat as a pancake," says David Blanchflower, an economist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., who has studied the measurement of happiness. "It hasn't risen since the 1970s."
When the Somerville survey dropped on my doorstep, I wasn't sure how to respond. I'd only lived a week in the city. The 10 questions seemed a little cheesy: On a scale of 1 to 10, "How happy do you feel right now?" and "How satisfied are you with Somerville as a place to live?"
In college, I would have tick, tick, ticked straight 10s. Now, existential questions about work and life purpose periodically drop me to a 2 or 3 for a few days on the happiness scale. How could I record a happiness quotient, and what, if anything, did it have to do with Somerville?
I was curious enough to ask. In the expansive office of Somerville's mayor, he and three city officials buzz with excitement as they describe the initiative. They finish each other's sentences and hand over a stack of photocopied pages with highlighted passages. "I don't rely just on the financial numbers," says Mayor Joseph Curtatone. "[That] doesn't tell you why your family decides to stay here."
He grew up here, watching it change from a place nicknamed "Slumerville," to an up-and-coming Boston suburb. Median condo prices are up 180 percent since 1995. The most densely populated city in New England, Somerville has become hip. But is it happy?
Somerville will follow up the paper surveys with more detailed phone interviews with selected households. The goal is that the findings inform public policy, although no one is exactly sure how yet. The results will be made public and presented at town meetings. People in the community will be able to decide what they want to do with them. Since there are no previous surveys, this year's results will serve as a baseline for future surveys. Eventually, city officials would like to create a happiness index.