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.

By , Correspondent

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.

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.

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"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.

Somerville was inspired by, of all places, Bhutan. In 1972, the king of that landlocked Asian nation famously said: "Gross national happiness is more important than gross domestic product." It took Bhutan until 2005 to send out a pilot survey. But it has since followed up with two broader surveys and published a gross national happiness index with numerical results in categories such as health, education, and psychological well-being.

The idea has spread. In 2008, French President Nicholas Sarkozy assembled a team of economists to examine the limitations of measuring progress with the traditional economic measure of gross domestic product. The study concluded that GDP couldn't fully capture environmental and psychological well-being.

For British Prime Minister David Cameron, it's not GDP but GWB that's important – general well-being. This month, the Office of National Statistics will start measuring the nation's well-being by asking 200,000 citizens to answer questions about happiness and life satisfaction.

Some communities have also attempted to measure happiness. In Brazil, two impoverished cities near São Paulo adapted Bhutan's survey and found that citizens wanted public parks, which are now in the works. Victoria, British Columbia, is currently conducting its second happiness and well-being survey after a pilot in 2008. In the United States, Seattle has its first-ever well-being survey out right now.

"Happiness, or life satisfaction, is probably the single best survey question that you could ask that captures the most information about what people would want to choose for themselves," says Dan Benjamin, an economics professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Supplementing GDP with a happiness index would give a fuller picture.

Not everyone agrees.

"I think that municipalities can draw from a lot of literature that has already been done rather than running their own surveys," says Will Wilkinson, a former research fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., and a blogger for The Economist. His research suggests that what makes people happy is already known.

For example: People are most likely to be happy if they live in a wealthy, democratic, welfare state, he says. Also, divorce, a long commute, or unemployment tend to make people miserable.

In the end, I let my new roommates fill out the Somerville survey. Even though I didn't know how to answer all the questions, I liked getting it in the mail. It was thoughtful and a nice welcome to town.

So, Somerville, I'd say I'm at about a 7 these days. Maybe even an 8 in the 50-degree weather we've been having lately. Thanks for asking.

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