Boston suburb asks its citizens to rate their happiness

The City of Somerville, Massachusetts, conducts its own census, and when the latest survey went out in early 2011, the forms included a new section asking a question government doesn’t often ask of its people: are you happy?

Somerville, just north of Boston, is the first in the country to pose this sort of question in a citywide survey. The results have recently been released and, overall, Somerville is a happy place. A brief sample:

How happy are you right now? Average score: 7.5

How satisfied are you with life in general? Average score: 7.7

How satisfied are you with Somerville? Average score: 7.7

Of the 80,000 residents in Somerville, about 6,700 filled out the survey, either on paper, over the phone or online.

“It may seem odd for a city government to ask people how happy they are,” writes Mayor Joe Curtatone in the introduction of Somerville's official report on wellbeing [PDF]. “Traditionally government just does what it does and hopes people are happy with it, or at least not actively angry. Yet what is the purpose of government if not to enhance the well-being of the public?”

Curtatone and city other officials were inspired to create their wellbeing survey after reading about a similar effort proposed by British Prime Minister David Cameron last year. The government of Bhutan has been monitoring Gross National Happiness since the 1970s.

Somerville worked with happiness expert and Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert to craft the survey and analyze the results. In addition to the questions posed above, the survey asked residents to rate various elements of the city, including the effectiveness of the police, the quality of public schools, the availability of affordable housing and the overall beauty of the city. Beauty was found to be an important factor in how satisfied people are with the city in general.

In phone surveys, residents were also asked to specifically rank various city departments and services, including the libraries, garbage collection, and sidewalk maintenance. The phone surveys were more detailed, but only represent 200 of the 6,727 responses.

The report calls itself a "modest effort," but it’s a novel approach to gathering public input on how a city works. And it's already led to some policy decisions that will affect the entire city:

One of the clearest policy implications comes from information on the zero-sort recycling program. Breaking the data down by Ward, SomerStat analysts discovered that in Ward 5, where the city had enacted a zero-sort pilot program, residents were significantly happier with the recycling services. This has helped inform the city’s decision to go citywide with zero-sort recycling.

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