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Somerville officials smiling over happiness survey

Posted by Marcia Dick  August 17, 2011 06:15 PM

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And the survey says … 7.5.

smiley_face_liz_Stoeckel.jpgOn a scale of 1 to 10, that's how happy almost 7,000 Somerville residents were this winter when they took the city's survey on well-being, the first-ever happiness survey by a US city, officials claim.

Residents were even slightly happier — 7.7 on a scale of 10 - with "life in general" and "with Somerville." The city will release complete findings and solicit community feedback at a meeting Tuesday.

"It may seem odd for a city government to ask people how happy they are. Traditionally government just does what it does and hopes people are happy with it, or at least not actively angry," Mayor Joe Curtatone wrote in the report. "Yet what is the purpose of government if not to enhance the well-being of the public? We are public servants and we should be focused on making your life better."

The survey appears to have furthered that goal. According to a draft report provided by Curtatone's office, residents were tickled to see government cared.

Of the responses, 200 were gathered by phone and 360 online. The remainder came from paper surveys mailed to approximately 40,000 households along with the city's annual census.

Response rates were low among most minority groups and young people age 18 to 24.

Of course, happiness is a complex concept — affected not only by municipal policies but by weather, family, and what side of bed you woke up on. The draft report notes that respondents tended to have "a more optimistic view of their life as a whole than of their momentary well-being."

To what extent does living in Somerville influence residents' happiness?

"We have put a lot of effort into this question, but it is difficult to tell from these data exactly what sorts of things are correlated to happiness," SomerStat staffers Tara Acker and Daniel Hadley said in an e-mail. "We know that people’s satisfaction with the city overall is correlated to happiness, but we need to do more research to understand that relationship … we plan to hold ongoing meetings with the public to learn what's most important to them."

Some explanations are available from the survey itself, which asked for opinions on city services. Judging from responses from Ward 5, everyone is likely to become a lot happier with recycling services when the citywide zero-sort program goes into effect this fall.

The survey also provided data on respondents' incomes and how similar they feel to people they know.

For the Tuesday meeting, staff are running additional calculations against public data, including walkability scores. Raw data will be available to anyone who wants to test their own theories.

The happiness meeting takes place at 6:30 p.m. at the Somerville High School library.

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