Flickr/mikeyskatie

The "Happiness Initiative" aims to measure well-being in cities across the country

Last week The Happiness Initiative, a Seattle-based organization determined to determine the city's well-being, presented the results of its first survey. During the first half of 2011 more than 2,600 Seattle residents took the survey, which examines nine happiness domains, including health, community, and psychological well-being. The initiative's measurement pairs broad questions with more objective indicators; the health domain, for instance, looks at self reports of general physical fitness as well as documented obesity rates.

On overall well-being, Seattle residents received a rather rainy score of 66 out of 100. (Abbreviated results here; much more useful full report here [PDF].) They scored particularly low on measures of "time balance" and environmental well-being: roughly 43 and 46, respectively. They don't appear happy with government, either — though who is these days — scoring a 58 on that domain.

Still there were a few traces of sunlight: The city scored best on psychological and material well-being — nearly 78 and 73, respectively. On three other domains — health, community, and cultural vitality (which asks about things like discrimination and recreation) — Seattle scored in the 60s.

If you live in Seattle you may find the neighborhood-by-neighborhood chart more informative (larger circles indicate more responses; darker ones, happier responses):

Some of the survey results harmonized with the objective data, while others did not. Seattle residents have rather long commutes, at nearly 30 minutes, and carbon emissions have increased lately at a local level, which supports low scores in the time and environment domains. But recently the city has seen a rise in ballot returns, an increased demand for domestic violence support, and falling levels of per capita income, according to the report. Those measurements somewhat contradict the survey findings on the government, psychological, and material domains.

The inconsistencies underscore the difficulty of measuring happiness across a general population. While the sample size was large, it wasn't random. It was also a voluntary survey, which may have attracted an unhappier population, for the same reason review sites like Yelp are filled with feedback from dissatisfied users. 

Still happiness is important, and the Happiness Initiative is doing a service in trying to measure it in an empirical, systematic fashion, rather than resorting to some Oprah-style "10 ways to increase your happiness" list. The initiative has developed partnerships in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and hopes to do the same in cities across the country. It's also hoping to use its findings to impact public policy: the Seattle city council recently agreed to "take into account the survey results and objective data for policy decisions and resource allocation," according to the survey report.

Exactly what the council plans to do is unclear. Broadly speaking, experts disagree on how to use happiness research to improve general well-being. For one thing, the best psychological evidence suggests that our happiness doesn't change much over time. As Dan Gilbert of Harvard, author of Stumbling on Happinessonce told me: "all that wonderful stuff we're aiming for — winning the lottery, getting promoted, whatever we think will change our lives — probably won't do it after all." And personal happiness also must be weighed against other social considerations, as Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker pointed out in a recent review of The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being, by Derek Bok:

Surely, trashing the planet is just as wrong if people take pleasure in the process as it is if they don’t. The same holds true for leaving future generations in hock and for exploiting the poor and for shrugging off inequality. Happiness is a good thing; it’s just not the only thing.

Photo credit: mikeyskatie/Flickr

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