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Can You Run A City Based On Happiness?

In Santa Monica, California, the government wants to make its citizens feel better.

It’s hard to imagine anyone being unhappy living in Santa Monica, California. The affluent beachfront city, a suburb of Los Angeles, is home to surfers, students, and celebrities mixed with vacationers have a good time.

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But not everyone’s doing as well as you’d think. According to the city’s first well-being index–and one of the first put together by any city in the world–many of the city’s 90,000 residents feel disengaged in their civic and social life.

Santa Monica’s Wellbeing Project is the result of two years of work and a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. The goal was to have Santa Monica provide a model of how cities can develop strategies for maximizing their citizens’ happiness, rather than traditional measures of economic prosperity. Many national governments, like Bhutan, Chile, and Canada, have been adopting this idea, but it hasn’t yet happened much on a local level.


“One of the things that we were really attempting to do is go beyond the traditional ways that governments use data, like miles of bike lanes, trees per acre, or crime rates.” says Julie Rusk, the city’s human services manager. “These are things we know are important, but what we wanted to do is take some of that data and combine it with surveys and social media to really understand how people are experiencing their lives.”

It’s not mysterious what makes people happy. What’s harder is how a government can measure it and change it–and what to weigh as most important. A panel of experts helped the city decide, looking at areas such as community, health, learning, and personal outlook. More than 2,200 people in the city of 78,000 adults responded to a survey sent out by the city using voter registration records and other forms of community outreach; they also used Tweets and Foursquare check-ins.

The results were surprising to the city, which always prided itself on its higher voter rates and volunteering rates than other parts of the state and the nation. Yet a surprisingly large percentage of residents felt they had little influence on local decision making. Furthermore people feel disengaged from their own communities: Only 56% say they know people they can count on in their neighborhood, while nationally 80% of Americans say they do. Santa Monicans were also not as healthy as the city thought, given the beautiful weather and plethora of outdoor activity options: more than 50% were not active every day. Many were concerned about affordability, with more than half believing that their children wouldn’t be able to afford to stay in the city.

On a personal level, the most surprising results was that it was young people, age 18 to 34, who tended to be most dissatisfied with their lives, while older age groups reported the highest satisfaction. In most national surveys, these poles tend to be reversed, with young age groups the happiest. About 1 in 3 young people said they were stressed all or most of the time. One in 5 said they were lonely all or most of the time. Santa Monica also found that its Latino residents report lower well-being than everyone else.

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The next step for the city is to figure out what to do with all of this information. “Civic engagement and social cohesion results seem to be resonating most with people,” says Rusk. “We know that being able to know your neighbors and count on them is a very important research-based metric in how resilient communities are. We’re working on strategies in partnership with communities to work on these social capital issues.”

The city is also looking to share its approach with other local governments. It has set up a detailed website to share the results with both its own citizens and others. You can read more about the work here.

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire

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