Getting happier by the minute

On March 22, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

mayor_webBy Joseph A. Curtatone

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)

Last year, Somerville became the first city in the United States to measure residents’ happiness as a way to more fully understand how municipal government can better serve our constituents, and create policies that reflect resident satisfaction with those policies.

Following in the footsteps of countries like Bhutan and France, we partnered with Harvard University Psychology Professor, Daniel Gilbert, to issue our first-ever Happiness Survey, designed to help us collect data to shape those policy discussions, aligning residents’ needs and city services to our overarching goal of making Somerville a great place to live, work, play and raise a family.

I have always suspected that residents of Somerville are happier than the average citizen.  Somervillians are proud of their city, they are engaged and connected, and it is reflected in the number of times people tell me how happy they are to live in a hip, vibrant community. Everything we do in Somerville is aligned around that one orienting value, and it’s working. If you were to develop a momentum index for communities in Massachusetts, taking into account all the improvements we’ve made, all of the improvements to come, the activity in our city squares, the gains made by our school system, our increasing green and recreational space, Somerville would be off the charts in first place. There’s nothing like us right now.

In the last several years, we have been lauded by a variety of reputable new sources and national agencies as one of the best place to live and, based on the results of the original Happiness Survey, it has a lot to do with the fact that, on average, residents are extremely happy with their city and the direction we’re headed.

We know that our inclusive approach to government is working. What we want to understand is how our policies affect subjective happiness, whether programs like our increasing our tree canopy or Zero Sort Recycling have any bearing on why individuals and family choose to move to, and remain in our city. But how can you even measure something like happiness, a lot of people ask, and why does City Hall want to know? What does it matter that Somerville residents ranked themselves 7.7 out of 10 on our “Happiness Scale?”

It matters because governments can learn a lot about the relationship between policy and wellbeing simply by asking. As Professor Gilbert put it, “Social policies are always meant to promote things that promote happiness, so how could it be a bad idea to measure directly the very thing you are trying to maximize?”

When we initiate a new program, or build a park, we hope that it will ultimately make people happier, creating a ripple effect in the community in terms of resident happiness, home values, and the overall structure of our community. I have argued that you cannot govern a city by only paying attention to its bond rating, or what is contained in the four corners of its budget document. Metrics like borrowing capacity and crime rates per capita are important, but they only tell part of the story. Happiness data help us fill in the picture by giving a more reliable estimate of how our policies and programs impact wellbeing.

Countries all over the world are recognizing the importance of measuring happiness, from Bhutan to the UK’s happiness index. Surprisingly, though, many U.S. cities are slow to follow suit. When we made the front page of the Sunday New York Times simply by sending out a citywide survey, I thought other mayors would insist on their own happiness indices. Really, what is the purpose of a government if not to enhance the wellbeing of the public?  We are public servants, and we should be focused on making your life better. As evidenced by the original study, most respondents feel we are moving in the right direction.

But we’re not done. As we continue to learn and grow along with our ever changing and expanding resident base, we must also adapt our policies and programs to reflect their changing needs to maintain quality of life.  Which is why, as many residents may already have noticed, we are again collecting data this year.  The difference is that we now have a benchmark by which we can measure change. Based on resident input and feedback in our initial survey, new questions will focus on detailed information affecting happiness, such as “How safe do you feel in your neighborhood?” for example.  We want to truly understand how our policies affect daily life in our neighborhoods and squares. We want to understand where we might better allocate resources to achieve citywide goals and ideals. We want our residents to feel that they have a stake in their community, and how it operates.

Make no mistake, this is not just about putting a number on people’s emotions. As one former ruler of Bhutan once said, “Gross national happiness is more important that gross domestic product.”  We hope to prove that.

Ultimately, I hope other cities follow our lead. We won’t really be able to say if our residents are happier than average until places like Cambridge and Boston perform their own surveys. Until that happens, I will just have to rely on my intuition.

We are the happiest city in the country. Who can tell us otherwise?


14 Responses to “Getting happier by the minute”

  1. mememe says:

    According to the mayors budget, he ranked being able to say “What does it matter that Somerville residents ranked themselves 7.7 out of 10 on our “Happiness Scale?”” over funding for feeding pregnant women, educating disabled children, kindergarten and the host of other things the city ‘is not able to do any more’ due to lack of funding.

    Does that make you a happier Somerville resident?

  2. A. Moore says:

    I have lived here for over 60 years and we are now discussing the purchase of a firearm. With recent and past events we no longer feel safe here anymore. The lsit is too long of stabbings, shootings, people strangled, stolen vehicles, breakins, and 2 to 3 times a year our cars are hit and run here. Vehicles vandalized. House vandalized. Boy am I happy.

  3. matt says:

    Are you serious, take a look at crime stats over the last 20 years, Somerville is far safer… Statistically speaking.

  4. Joseph says:

    What is a ‘happiness scale’ and how do you get your ‘happiness’ recorded? I don’t know anyone who has had anything to do with this. My happiness is off the scale (the bottom, not the top).

  5. A. Moore says:

    mememe, you forgot the increase in homeless people. I am sure they would be thrilled to read this. Guess they can’t, they don’t have a home. Project soup is expecting cuts, gonna have some more unhappy hungry people here. But maybe these are not real residents and don’t count.

  6. j. connelly says:

    Only real Happy people are mayor, his hacks,Tufts, developers, house flippers, tax-exempt properties.
    The REAL residents, long term residency/renters, are not happy but sad that the few are allowed to rule and the majority are being cast aside.
    Time for change.

  7. A. Moore says:

    Hard to say Matt, I no longer bother to call the police when we get a hit and run here or vandelism. It’s just a waste of time. I have had 5 car thefts, just my car on my street, I Know the neighbors did too. Hit and runs on my street are quite a few times a year, no one bothers anymore, just get it fixed. Flat tires. Twice someone started fires on my property. No longer put up decorations as they burn them down. Girl strangeled a few hundred feet from my door. 4 doors up a stabbing. Rocks thrown through car windows. Last year my car was hit 3 times. These are only the ones I Know. Accross the street shootings, but I only read about that last year. There is much more but that makes for a long story that works it way up to the mayor and gets moved down to the policeman I started with. In otherwords nowhere.

  8. Harry Dunn says:

    15% of people of this city are living BELOW the poverty line, and the City’s school system is ranked 118th out of the 135 school districts in Eastern Massachusetts. Is this something to be happy about? But all is well, as long as their is some sort of festival or some other farce to keep all of the transplants HAPPY, and when it comes time to put roots down and raise a family they move elsewhere…..

  9. Ray Spitzer says:

    If you are healthy, have food, shelter, and are part of a group of human beings who like you, then life is good. If you are not happy when you have these things, then it means something is wrong with you and happiness is not your thing to begin with.

  10. A. Moore says:

    Only 15%? I would have thought that to be much higher from the people I Know. Maybe I just hang around the poor folk of Somerville.

  11. Harry says:

    As long as “Nooky” Curtatone tells us we’re happy…. then I guess we’re happy. The only thing he has going for him is his sister has some bug guns.

  12. j. connelly says:

    Between the mayor and his PR man it’s a constant con game, mostly hype. Well once they move off of the public trough they could have a future as carnival hackers.

  13. m hellen says:

    I have lived in Somerville for 61 years and I too had to put an alarm in my house, I never go out without putting it on. My house was broken into three years ago and I never got over the fact someone was in my home helping themselves to my things. Someone saw us leave for the long weekend and took advantage. I love Somerville but it is not the Somerville I knew as a kid. Drugs are a big issue. I grew up with children in my neighborhood, not anymore, they come for awhile and move on. I am not saying this does not go on else where but I do think our city could be better. To many freebies to people who abuse it. I see it everyday in my neighborhood.

  14. A. Moore says:

    m hellen We didn’t have a key to our house until we moved. Never mind alarm. Not that any breakins are fun but the first one to me is the worst. Standing there wondering what happened until the brain clicks in that you were broken into. I was standing there wondering why my wife left the door open and why the draws were all open. Same with the first car that was stolen, I kept looking in the driveway for it over and over like it was going to reappear. A lot of my family has moved out of here to Ohio, the part they live in is about the same as back then. No one locks the doors and the keys to the car are left in there all the time. Hardly anything opens on Sunday. You know your neighbors. Kids outside playing. Just reminds me so much of what it was like here so many years ago.

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