Santa Monica, Calif., on Monday unveiled an index of its residents’ well-being. Cue the California jokes.
But look again. Researchers spent a year and used a $1 million grant that the city won from Bloomberg Philanthropies in its initial Mayors Challenge competition. Santa Monica’s index uses dozens of measures ranging from produce consumption to library card ownership to feelings of safety.
An explosion of social statistics has spawned city, state and national rankings, many not worth the time it takes to click through the photo gallery. They’re often a mess of inappropriate or incomplete data sliced down to a top 10 list.
But serious efforts to improve social yardsticks have been developing for years. A growing body of research shows that cities where people feel happier have better economic gains. So an accurate measurement that focuses more on people and less on economic measures like gross domestic product, is the Holy Grail.
The first United Nations Human Development Index was published in 1990. The playfully named Happy Planet Index made its debut in 2006. The U.S.-based Social Science Research Council published the first American Human Development Index in 2008.
And just this month, Gallup and Healthways published the latest version of their polling-driven well-being rankings of large U.S. cities and the UN-affiliated Sustainable Nations Development Network published its third World Happiness Report.
Most share a focus on how well people live, as measured by health, education and living standard data.
Santa Monica’s index goes farther. It includes outlook — how people feel — and a measure of the environment, both natural and man-made. Findings:
- 70% report being happy all or most of the time; only 5% report being sad all or most of the time.
- Older age groups score higher overall than young ones, whites and Asians higher than Hispanic and blacks.
- On survey statements like “I am free to decide for myself how to live my life,” and “Most days I get a sense of accomplishment from what I do,” 70% to 80% of residents agreed, matching levels seen on similar surveys in Europe.
Many U.S. communities have assessed themselves at least once through a set of indicators. Few have used them to drive government policy, foundation funding or measure change with regular updates.
With its beautiful location, mild climate and strong economy, Santa Monica would seem to have few worries.
But the report uncovered weaknesses. A fifth of residents worry about paying their rent or mortgage, an affordability concern driven by high housing prices. That concern is higher among minorities and the young.
Residents score below the U.S. average in feeling they can count on the people around or in their ability to change local conditions.
The report authors suggested that the city try to strengthen civic engagement by leveraging its outdoor spaces and facilities.
Self-assessment, change and reassessment — not list rankings — represent the real potential of well-being indexes.