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Using “Happiness” as a Measure of Community Performance in Shrinking Cities

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Daniel Hummel
November 2, 2017

In 2012, the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network published their ‘World Happiness Report’ for the first time. The report was meant to change the discussion on country-to-country comparisons with various metrics so those countries considered a more inclusive conception of well-being. Since this report, ‘happiness’, or its more encompassing term ‘well-being’, is starting to become another formal measure of whether a country, state or community is actually improving the well-being of its citizens over time. This data is ascertained through surveying a representative sample of those people that live within the administrative boundaries of the government. Some governments have established it as one of the measures of success such as Bhutan and France and in the United States with Vermont. It is likely more governments will adopt this measure.

Caption: Tremonton, Utah. Ogden, just south of here, ranks in the top 50 communities for well-being. Provo, just south of Salt Lake City, ranks in the top 20 communities for well-being. (Photo belongs to the author)

In the United States, Gallup-Healthways has established a measure of well-being based on five categories which encapsulate their own questions and scores. These scores are then aggregated to form a single well-being score. These categories are purpose (motivation), social (support), financial (management of finances), community (sense of place) and physical (good health). Its most recent report ranked 189 different communities across the country. Flint, Michigan, where my university is located, came in at 184 indicating low levels of well-being in general.

Happiness is a controversial topic because it seems vague. Jonathan Haidt in his book “The Happiness Hypothesis” described it as “mostly heritable,” i.e., largely determined by genetics. Despite this assertion he noted happiness can be furthered through a thought-changing process which can be affected by the condition in which a person is located. The condition is one part of his ‘happiness formula’ which includes the set point (inherited happiness) and the propensity to engage in voluntary activities. The importance of condition in individual happiness is where policymakers can make the largest impact on this measure.

One important condition is a sustainable community. Making communities more sustainable could improve happiness. This was a question raised by Cloulier, Larson and Jambeck in an article that questioned the relationship. These authors used the Gallup-Healthways measure and different measures of sustainability at the city-level to test the correlation between the measures. Based on the results the authors concluded that cities which pursue sustainability increase happiness. This sustainability would stress adapting to future changes while not exacerbating the problems with these changes along the way. Despite the weaknesses in the study, these are encouraging findings for those interested in achieving sustainable communities. Besides the typical measures of goal achievement for sustainability, happiness could also be another pertinent measure.

Beside the moral implications of the question, some wonder why community happiness is important in the first place. Those who are happier tend to live longer, have higher levels of productivity and earn more than those who are less happy. The connections are difficult to ignore especially if one measures success in a community along the lines of GDP and GDP is affected by how happy or miserable a community is in general. Of course, the problem of reverse causality in the relationship cannot also be ignored.

Shrinking cities tend to have lower levels of well-being than other cities. The relationship between economic hardship and well-being is undeniable and it is encompassed in the Gallup-Healthways measure through their financial category. The financial difficulties in these cities require long-term solutions, but there are steps that can be taken to improve resident well-being along the way. Haidt noted in his book that making progress towards a goal is more important for happiness than achieving it in which change contains vital stimuli in this process. A shrinking city that is making strides towards a goal with visible changes occurring might be vitally important to resident well-being.

In addition, Haidt noted, “changing an institution’s environment to increase the sense of control among its workers, students, patients, or other users was one of the most effective possible ways to increase their sense of engagement, energy, and happiness.” This means not only striving towards viable change, but engaging the people in the process are critical elements in improving community well-being. Based on these understandings, shrinking cities can make big steps towards improving well-being while still being far away from achieving their economic development goals. These communities will have to adopt this measure of success not only for their own improvement in this area, but as a signal of their commitment to it for the community. Many shrinking cities, like Flint, are able to do this.


Author: Dr. Hummel is an assistant professor in the Public Administration Program in the Department of Political Science at the University of Michigan, Flint. He teaches classes on state and local finance, inter-governmental relations and public administration. His research interests are urban resiliency / sustainability and right-sizing cities. His office # is 810-762-3470. His email is [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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