Census questions are pretty basic and familiar. Income. Marital status. Number of kids. Happiness level.
It’s by no means the norm, but broad public surveys are focusing more and more on people’s psychological well-being, not just their material circumstances. John Tierney reported yesterday in The New York Times on one of the latest signs of this trend: the city census form distributed by officials in Somerville, Massachusetts, this spring.
On top of the usual questions, Somerville’s census also asked residents questions like, on a scale of 1 to 10, “How happy do you feel right now?” and “In general, how similar are you to other people you know?” and “Taking everything into account, how satisfied are you with Somerville as a place to live?”
Somerville has created such questions at a time when many scientists, activists, and some policy makers have been arguing that societies need more than the Gross National Product to gauge their overall level of well-being. Some scholars, such as former Harvard president Derek Bok, in his recent book The Politics of Happiness, have made the case that findings from positive psychology should inform social policies, helping the public benefit from what scientists have learned about the roots of a happy, meaningful life.
The idea still has a long way to go. As Tierney writes,
Monitoring the citizenry’s happiness has been advocated by prominent psychologists and economists, but not without debate over how to do it and whether happiness is even the right thing for politicians to be promoting. The pursuit of happiness may be an inalienable right, but that is not the same as reporting blissful feelings on a questionnaire.
Still, change definitely does seem to be afoot. Well beyond the city limits of Somerville, which is just outside of Boston, the UK government has devised a national survey to measure its citizens’ happiness levels—a move that echoes the small country of Bhutan‘s efforts to track the Gross National Happiness of its citizens. France has initiated a similar project, Tierney reports.
In Somerville’s case, it’s not yet entirely clear how the city will use the happiness data it collects.
Somerville officials hope to create a well-being index that they can track over time and perhaps eventually compare with results in neighboring towns (assuming the other towns follow their example). But they acknowledge that figuring out how their policies affect that index will be a challenge.
“We want to see what the baseline data tell us and then expand,” said Tara Acker, director of SomerStat, the city’s program to analyze data. “Is there a correlation between happiness and open space or green space? If we see low levels of satisfaction correlated to low levels of income, perhaps we want more programs aimed at low-income people.”
But for the time being, simply collecting the data is the vital first step.
“The data may show nothing of interest or they may hold big surprises—you just can’t tell until you collect them,” Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychology professor and happiness expert, told Tierney. “But given that it costs nothing to add some questions about happiness to a census that is already going out, why wouldn’t you?”