Should California measure wellbeing when setting policy?

150 150 Alexandra Bjerg

Taking happiness into account when setting policy is being pushed for by some in California. (Photo Credit: Matthew Grant Anson)

Our unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, are enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Unlike life and liberty, happiness has little influence on public policy; but that’s slowly changing. Over the last several years a growing chorus of scholars has been calling on government to measure happiness as a means to steer policy-making.

I know what you’re thinking: “How can government measure a feeling?” But don’t write off happiness, and more broadly wellbeing, as subjectively squishy and therefore too complex to quantify.

The tiny mountain country of Bhutan adopted the Gross National Happiness index in the 1970’s. A number of countries, including Britain, Brazil, and Canada, have embraced similar initiatives to gauge their citizens’ wellbeing.

Closer to home, the coastal California City of Santa Monica was recently awarded $1 million to create a Local Wellbeing Index, the first in the nation, to assess and improve residents’ happiness and wellbeing .

Santa Monica received funding for the Wellbeing Project after being named one of five winners out of a pool of more than 300 cities in the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, a nationwide competition aimed at improving city life by inspiring cities to develop local innovative solutions to complex problems facing their communities.

“Economists and governments around the world are increasingly looking for metrics to understand just how well their cities—and citizens—are doing,” said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “Santa Monica can be a real pioneer in this effort, and Bloomberg Philanthropies is eager to see Mayor O’Connor’s idea become a model for the country.”

Although wellbeing can be defined in a variety of ways, it’s not as hard to measure as you might think. In fact, most cities already collect a lot of the data required to assess societal welfare.

Among the several key factors that contribute to a community’s overall wellbeing are health, happiness, employment, education, security, and social connectedness, all of which are impacted most directly by policy decisions made at the local level. 

As a result, Santa Monica officials are asking: How do the city’s polices affect residents’ wellbeing?

To answer this question, Santa Monica officials will team up with researchers at RAND Corp. to develop metrics used to create the Local Wellbeing Index. Once complete, it will be embedded in public policy and decision-making across all city departments.

By quantifying the wellbeing of its residents, Santa Monica officials hope to address one of the greatest challenges facing local governments today: the efficient allocation of dwindling resources.

“Cities feel constant pressure to do more with less, especially in the current fiscal landscape,” said Santa Monica Mayor Pam O’Connor. “Measuring wellbeing will yield information that will help us make the most effective use of our resources to meet the community’s needs.”

A comprehensive understanding of the community’s wellbeing will not only inform resource allocation, it will drive budget discussions. For example, I know I’d be happier if my commute to work were shorter. If Santa Monica discovers that a majority of residents feel the same way, officials could prioritize funding for public transportation.

California Forward has been very supportive of budgeting driven by data and performance metrics, because as the old business adage goes, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. Emphasizing wellbeing, rather than just municipal financial health, as a yardstick for success and public policy guide is an intriguing approach.

Santa Monica’s Wellbeing Project has tremendous potential not only to enhance government efficiency, but also to improve the community’s overall welfare.

“Our Local Wellbeing Index is going to be a game-changer, not just for Santa Monica, but for cities across the country and beyond,” said O’Connor. As evidence pointing to a strong connection between wellbeing and good governance continues to grow, cities nationwide will be eagerly watching Santa Monica’s progress. 

While many might dismiss the idea of measuring happiness as trivial, few would disagree that government plays an important role in ensuring societal wellbeing. Which raises the question: Why isn’t improved quality of life already at the heart of public policy?


Alexandra Bjerg

All stories by: Alexandra Bjerg