The World Happiness Report was released last week, and it seems that Scandinavia and northern Europe have quite the lock on the top slots. Though Switzerland sneaks in at #1 and Canada at #5, the rest of the top eight happy countries are filled out by Iceland; Denmark, Norway, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden. (The U.S. slots in at #15.)
These cold weather countries may have a relatively higher tax burden, but they also are home to very strong social supports and a focus on quality of life.
However, the Happiness Report isn’t really about the rankings. It’s about considering more than economic output as a measure of a country’s well-being. In addition to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) the report also tracks social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and perceptions of public corruption.
As the adage goes, you can’t manage what you can’t measure, and this report strongly suggests governments should be measuring and managing priorities across a spectrum of human needs and aspirations. Though subjective, this rounded set of indicators provides a much different basis for policy decisions that would lead to a much different set of outcomes than focusing strictly on GDP.
Meanwhile, on a more localized scale, Gallup-Healthways recently provided a somewhat different but related set of metrics for gauging community health that drills down to metropolitan level. The 2014 Community Well Being Index compares metros across the U.S. on five categories including:
- “Purpose: liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
- Social: having supportive relationships and love in your life
- Financial: managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
- Community: liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community
- Physical: having good health and enough energy to get things done daily”
Our hometown region of Buffalo, NY did not perform well on this index. Again, though this should be about highlighting a full-spectrum approach to public policy and priorities and not be about the ranking number, it is disconcerting to see exactly where Buffalo suffered.
Buffalo-Niagara’s composite rank was 89 out of the 100 metros examined (with 1 being highest well-being). Even though Buffalo is known for its historically depressed economy, it did fairly well when residents were asked to gauge their financial well-being (#17). Beyond that, however, there was not a lot of praise for the region. The City of Good Neighbors ranked 78th in social support and 87th in community, 80th in physical health and a stark 97th in purpose.
This analysis uses self-reported survey data rather than objective metrics. Without objective data, it’s hard to control for varying community expectations or the Eeyore Effect, so the 0-100 index is a bit more problematic than the raw scores listed on the Happiness Report.
However, these rankings do suggest a higher focus on quality of life may, indeed, be in order. Luckily, public policy and public investment can move the needle on each of these factors.
Investments in public gathering spaces like parks, squares and complete streets can increase social interaction and build community identity and pride. These types of placemaking activities also can encourage active transportation – impacting physical health. Zoning and land use can play a role, too. For instance, ensuring all residents have access to a park within 1/4 mile of their home can also increase physical activity and health. Building regulations requiring worker proximity to windows and natural light can also enhance employee satisfaction and productivity.
Counties, cities and towns can institute a wide range of programming and policies to impact happiness and well-being. When crossed with the power of bully/buddy pulpit (see Oklahoma City’s weight loss challenge for just one great example), localities can make a great impact on the lives of their residents.