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December 14, 2012 / sadhbhanu

Somerville: the city where policies are based on how happy they make people

The mayor of the Massachusetts city is collecting data on how happy residents are and using it to shape his policymaking

What is this elusive thing called happiness? Can it be quantified? Can money buy it? Does tree density improve it, and, most importantly, can local government do anything to enhance it? These are questions that Joe Curtatone, the mayor of Somerville, a mid-sized city in Massachusetts, decided were worth investigating. And so, last year with the local census, he sent out the first ever US citywide happiness survey.

In many ways, Somerville was the perfect place to conduct such a survey. With more than 75,000 residents living in less than 4.2 square miles, it is the most densely populated city in New England. Surrounded by some of the most prestigious universities in the country, including Harvard and Tufts, it boasts a highly educated and intellectually curious citizenry.

“Fifty five per cent of our residents have a college or advanced degree,” says Curtatone. “They are a very cerebral and engaged constituency who demand results.”

Since his election in 2003, Curtatone has strived to deliver results with a scientific, data driven approach. As mayor-elect, he signed up for anewly elected mayor’s conference led by Professor Linda Bilmes of the Kennedy School at Harvard. He subsequently recruited more than two-thirds of her students to implement many of the policy ideas generated at that conference and beyond. As a result he has been widely credited with transforming the city from a place you look to for how not to do things to one that is considered one of the best run municipalities in America.

Still, it was important for Curtatone to be able to measure the fruits of those efforts and to see if they were furthering his goal of making Somerville a great place to live, work, play and raise a family. “There is no point planting trees and installing bike lanes, if people don’t want more trees or bike lanes,” he told me. Inspired by David Cameron’s nationwide wellbeing survey in the UK, measuring the happiness of Somerville’s residents and correlating the results with their satisfaction with the city seemed like the logical next step.

The 10 questions in the survey were compiled partly by Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert and taken partly from the UK survey.

Participants were asked to rate on a scale of one to ten, both their momentary happiness (“How happy do you feel right now?”) and their overall happiness (“How satisfied are you with your life in general?”). As testimony to our human inclination towards optimism, the latter question tended to yield a higher result.

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