A 1.4-acre plot of land east of downtown Takoma Park has long been eyed for development. While a neighborhood food co-op has sat on part of it for 20 years, a new plan to redevelop the space envisions restaurants, cafes, a parking garage and office space.
Guest Host: Marc Fisher
It seems that each week a new report ranks cities “best” or “worst” in traffic, livability, cost-of-living and myriad other factors. While the data may raise hackles -– or be a point of pride -– for those in the rankings, measuring our lives on everything from air quality to employment has implications that go far beyond good Internet fodder. But does the data match our real-world experience? We explore the latest tools to measure well-being, and find out why the question, “How’s life?” can affect policy and populations.
- Mary Rowe Director, Urban Resilience and Livability, Municipal Art Society of New York
- Carol Guthrie Head, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Washington Center
- Paolo Veneri Economist, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
- Carol Graham Senior fellow in economic studies, Brookings Institution; Professor, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland
MR. MARC FISHERI'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. It seems like each week a new headline ranks our region best or worst by any number of measures. This month federal data showed Washington was the most expensive city to live in. In March we were the third happiest metro area according to a Gallup poll. And now new data says our region is comparable to Manitoba and Northern Australia in measurements of well-being. So what does all this really mean? Is there such a thing as a way to accurately measure happiness or well-being when the data seems so subjective? It's a question researchers are striving to answer as they find new tools to measure the age-old question, how's life?
MR. MARC FISHERHere to help us understand how they're doing it is Carol Guthrie. She's the head of the Washington Center for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Welcome.
MS. CAROL GUTHRIEThank you for having me today.
FISHERAnd joining us by phone from Paris is Paola Veneri who's an economist with that same OECD. Thanks for joining us.
MR. PAOLA VENERIThank you.
FISHERIn New York we have Carol Graham, a senior fellow in global economy and development at the Brookings Institution. She's the author of "The Pursuit of Happiness: An Economy of Well-Being." Thanks for joining us.
MS. CAROL GRAHAMThanks for having me.
FISHERCarol Guthrie, let's start with you. As the head of the OECD's Washington office and a native of Tennessee, you were, I guess, pretty horrified by some of the headlines you saw generating from this regional data about well-being. There was a piece in the Washington Post on the Wonkblog in which was headlined "Why the south is the worst place to live in the U.S." And I guess that ticked you off.
GUTHRIEWell, it didn't so much tick me off as make it clear that if I was going to go home for Thanksgiving or Christmas I had an enormous amount of explaining to do about what the data did and didn't mean.
FISHERAnd so it's not the worst place to live?
GUTHRIENo, and that's not what the OECD is saying. The regional well-being tool that the OECD has put together actually -- and my colleague Paolo can probably tell this in a little more detail -- it actually looks at nine different measures objectively. We measure things that can be measured purely based on data to look at how a region does in employment. How it does in health. How it does in safety. How it does in environment.
GUTHRIEOne thing that we specifically didn't do was aggregate all of that into a measure of, this is a great place to live, this is a terrible place to live. The region well-being tool is meant to be just that, a tool to start conversations so that people can look at what's working and what's not where they live and have a little more guidance as they choose what to tackle.
FISHERAnd the OECD certainly produces this data for policymakers so that they can make decisions about policies. But of course you also know that journalists are going to take this data and draw those over-simplified conclusions because that's what we do.
GUTHRIEWell, being a former journalist myself I would never accuse the profession of such a thing. But that's why it's important to have the conversation. It would be a terrible thing if people just took a look at the data, drew some quick conclusions and then never talked about it again. But this has really sparked a conversation across the country and so we're thrilled to be having it at the OECD.
FISHERLet us know what you think the keys of -- to well-being are for you. What would improve quality of life in this region and how do you measure happiness here versus living somewhere else? Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850 or email us at email@example.com. And Paolo Veneri, one of the priorities of this international organization, the OECD that has 34 member countries, one of your priorities is to measure a society's well-being and progress. You then use that data to promote policy but when you get this data used to produce headlines like Australia is the best place to live or why the south is the worst place to live, I mean, is this an improper use of your data? Tell us how you go about measuring what sounds like a subjective concept.
VENERIWell, measuring -- well, we measure not subjective things. I mean, with this tool, with this approach we want to measure different and well-being dimension, nine different well-being dimensions for each of the 362 OECD regions. But it's not a subjective measurement. We don't -- I can say very easily what we cannot provide and what we don't provide. We don't make a single assessment of the overall well-being in the region. We just collect, compile data that actually in most of the cases is already existing and introduced by the National Institute of Statistics.
VENERISo we have a dialogue with the National Institute of Statistics to identify which indicator we can use to compare region or across different -- or across the world, across different countries to have information about the conditions of health of people, the conditions of jobs, the condition of safety, the condition of income and so on for nine different dimensions, but are not subject assessment for the moment.
FISHERSo for health, for example, you're looking at things like mortality rate and life expectancy.
VENERIExactly, exactly. We use this kind of data with our hard data produced by NSO, National Statistical Offices. So we compile and we make sure that this data comparable and that associated to specific entities at our regions, so national entities and not at the national level. Because our starting point is recognizing that people's well-being is shaped by the characteristics of the individuals, of course, but also the characteristics of the place where -- likability of places and the characteristics of the place where people live.
VENERIBecause most factors that really affects people's daily lives are actually determined at the local level. And so people's well-being should be measured where it happens, where it matters.
FISHERCarol Graham, in New York for the Brookings Institution, you wrote a book called "The Pursuit of Happiness: An Economy of Well-Being." When you're trying to compare well-being from one society to another, how would cultural differences enter into the picture? Is one culture's sense of happiness vastly different from another's? And is that a measurable thing?
GRAHAMIt's very measurable. It's not so much that their sense of happiness may be all that different, although that is sometimes the case, but also the way people answer surveys can also be quite different. I had a British friend who got so tired of being told to have a nice day when she went around the U.S. that she started saying, thank you, I have other plans. The reason being we are sort of wired to say, have a nice day. Be cheerful in the way we answer even if we're not feeling that way. And other societies are a big more, you know, understated.
GRAHAMWhen we compare surveys of hundreds of thousands of people across countries, we can actually control for those cultural differences in simply the way people answer surveys and other things maybe that we can't observe and still measure individual well-being. The other quite important issue, and here it may be as a bit of defensive survey data which is becoming increasingly robust as we're working more and more with it, is that we are almost measuring well-being in very distinct dimensions.
GRAHAMAnd so one is daily experience, how people experience their day. Are they stressed, are they worried or are they happy at the moment? Those momentary measures track very closely with psychological measures of well-being and really have been tried and true in terms of robustness.
GRAHAMThen we also measure what we call people's evaluative well-being, how they think of their lives as a whole. And that includes their vision of their life course. Do they have meaning or purpose in life? There is where we tend to find a bit more variance across countries and linked to some extent, but not only, to how wealthy they are. Because in wealthier countries people have more opportunities to lead the kinds of lives they want to lead and choose the kind of lives they want to lead.
GRAHAMSo if you do a scatter plot of per capita income across countries and say smiling yesterday, you get absolutely no relationship between income and that positive affect measure. If you do a scatter plot of life evaluation measures, life satisfaction and per capita income you will get more of a relationship between per capita income and life evaluations but not necessarily a linear one.
FISHERAnd Carol Guthrie, in -- go back to your example of the south and how southerners perceive their own well-being versus how perhaps outsiders think of them, you make the point that one thing that you don't measure for in these surveys is southerners' appreciation for living there. In other words, people can have a different self image then of what the data actually shows.
GUTHRIEWell, and I think that you're right and I think that's a very important thing to consider for journalists and everyone when they look at this particular regional well-being outcome. This particular data at the regional level -- first of all, not a survey. These aren't people answering questions about how they feel. This is a look at objective criteria that underpin economic as well as physical well-being that make regions more or less competitive.
GUTHRIESo at the regional level we don't have people answering questions about how they feel. Interestingly enough, as part of the OECD's Better Life initiative we have a broader initiative that's at the national level called the Better Life Initiative that does take into account that subjective well-being. How people's networks contribute to their life satisfaction, how the way they interact with their communities contributes to their life satisfaction. So that is something that is typically measured more on a national level than on a regional level. And so -- but that subjective material is not included in this regional tool.
FISHERYou can join our conversation at 1-800-433-8850 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And here's Ben in Arlington. Ben, you're on the air.
BENHi. Thanks for taking my call. Going with your panelists' last conversation, I was wondering if rates of obesity, depression or suicide go into these studies instead of purely sort of economic factors?
FISHERPaolo Veneri, do you want to answer that?
VENERISo, yeah, did not understand the question well, if you could repeat.
FISHERThe question was whether indicators such as obesity and...
FISHER...suicide are used in determining well-being.
VENERIOkay. So the answer is no for now. I mean, not in the web tool that we have. So basically this project on regional well-being is made of a report and a database that -- where we collect and compile several indicators of well-being. But the obesity rate and the suicide rates are not considered yet, but not because are not good indicators of course. Because now -- I mean, we have to make sure that all indicators we compile -- we provide are available for all the regions in OECD.
FISHERAnd Carol Graham, why do you think -- I mean, obviously this field of happiness and well-being research is fairly new but it's a thriving area of economics at this point. Why do you think there is such a passion to know how we stand up against the guy in the next town over or the people across the ocean? What is it that drives people to want to quantify this?
GRAHAMWell, so many people tend to be interested in these comparative rankings. You know, how does my city rank with another one? How does another country rank with another country? Typically those aggregate a lot of data and the comparisons are much less precise than when we do this at the individual level. And then we really can see sort of as close to the true determinants of well-being as we can identify as scholars.
GRAHAMWhat drives the interest in this? Well, it's an age-old interest going back well beyond the time of Aristotle. So it's something obviously that is a human question about human existence and what's its purpose and what makes it good or bad. In terms of the sort of explosion from not just the scholarly perspective but the policy perspective, I think it has to do with what was a very nascent collaboration between economists and psychologists about 15 years ago.
GRAHAMPeople used to look at us like we were certifiably nuts if you said you worked on happiness, to a wealth of academic data by economists, by psychologists now with medical doctors at studies of genes. And sort of, you know, looking at actually the biological determinants of well-being. So it's become a whole new approach in the social sciences. And as more and more people have begun to work with the data, as more and more surveyed data has been collected, we have, you know, really powerful statistical regularities. And so we have very robust findings and across both these dimensions.
GRAHAMAnd then from the policy perspective, we actually have -- you know, the government of Britain has already included well-being metrics in its statistics. The OECD with several representatives on the show has this better living index and has also issued guidelines for statistical offices around the world that want to collect well-being data. And even the U.S. I just served on a National Academy of Sciences panel tasked with recommending if we were to use well-being metrics in our statistics, which metrics, which statistics.
GRAHAMI think part of the interest or the more recent interest in addition to just understanding more about it and excitement about what we're able to measure may have something to do with the financial crisis. There was a real questioning at that time in sense of how good are our standard economic models, how good are our measures of progress. I think people's expectations also recalibrated a bit after sort of the collapse of the housing market, the collapse of the financial markets. And this came up at a pretty timely -- you know, came up in a timely fashion.
FISHERAnd Paolo Veneri, these subjective factors that we talked about earlier, things like job satisfaction, is there work underway that would allow those to be combined with these more straightforward, hard measures of things like unemployment rates and life expectancy?
VENERIYes, of course. I mean, it's our objective. Our objective is to advance the measurement of additional dimensions and also to include these subjective measures. The only point is that this represents a challenge because usually surveys, where we can collect this kind of information, are designed to be represented at the national level. And that's why having this information at the regional level is so difficult. But we are working on seeing what are the possible solutions for the future.
FISHERAnd Paolo Veneri, thanks very much for joining us. When we come back after a short break, more of your calls. And we'll be joined by someone who -- another person who works on happiness. She has the unusual title of director of urban resilience and livability. We'll learn more about that after a short break. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi.
FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And we are talking about how to measure well-being and happiness and the reasons people live in one place or another. And we're talking with Carol Guthrie, head of the Washington Center for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, as well as Carol Graham of the Brookings Institution. And we'll be joined in a moment by Mary Rowe of the Municipal Arts Society of New York. But, first, Carol Guthrie, when you look at -- I'm sorry, when the data that you're collecting -- is there -- obviously the purpose of it is to help shape and change policy at the local and national level.
FISHERCan you give us an example or two of how -- knowing that one particular region is doing very well or not so well on this well-being ranking -- would actually lead to a specific policy?
GUTHRIESure. For instance -- and I think you've asked exactly the right question, because, you know, it's interesting to look at how your region compares or how your country compares on these different indicators and data points. But the real question for policymakers is, Well, what do we do with this? So when you look, for instance, at the nine objective criteria that the regional well-being tool measures, that helps a policymaker who may be the governor of a state or the mayor of a city say, Oh, actually, we're pretty competitive in this area of education, not so competitive in the area of safety or not so competitive in the area of environment.
GUTHRIESo if I want to raise the game of my region, make it more economically competitive, make it a more attractive place to live, make it a more attractive place for investment, this may be where I need to start. And so the idea is not so much that we shape specific policies with this data, but that we give policymakers and, it's very important to say, the public -- people who want to be engaged in the decisions that their community makes about what to tackle first and where to put their resources. The idea is to give them objective data that shows them what's working well and what's not, so they know where to start.
FISHERLet's bring in Mary Rowe, director of urban resilience and livability at the Municipal Art Society of New York. And Mary Rowe, the Municipal Art Society has done its own livability surveys in New York City over the years. Are you asking the same kinds of questions or looking at the same kinds of data that we've been hearing about? And what's missing when you drill down from these measures that the OECD has looked at, when you look at the local level?
MS. MARY ROWEHi, Marc. I'm still reacting to your suggestion that my title is strange.
FISHERI don't know about strange. But it's -- I think it's...
ROWEMaybe if I had said weird, actually.
FISHERI think it's, no, I think it's fascinating. Well, first of all -- all right, so let's go there. What does urban resilience?
ROWENo, I'm just -- I was just chuckling when I heard you mention that. Well, you know, urban resilience is the capacity of the city to be able to adapt to its constant change. And it's -- and that -- and the different kinds of threats that are thrown at cities so unpredictably. So it's sort of unpredictable change. Often it can be fast change or it can be slower change. It can be economic or social or environmental or cultural. And I think where I sort of interact with the two Carols and the work that they're doing is that there's always got to be a blend between objective data, which is hugely useful, particularly for state policy, federal policy and for when you're drawing comparisons.
ROWEAs what has been suggested and as your caller in Paris was suggesting, when you try to provide measures that give us a sense of how we're doing generally against each other. But when it comes to actually motivating citizens, people who live in cities, about their own neighborhoods and how things are -- how they're faring, then subjective data is actually very useful. Because it resonates with people. It mirrors what their experience is. So the OECD data may be really credible and allows us to be able to compare New York City with Boston with Chicago or with London or with Mumbai.
ROWEBut in terms of actually, when you're functioning in your neighborhood, the more -- I think -- more motivational data is stuff that you've generated and you can actually touch and feel and see and it speaks to your own experience. So that's part of why we...
FISHERSo give us a couple of examples of what would go into a livability survey.
ROWEAccess to public space. So the reason that my title has livability and resilience in it together is that we think that these attributes of urban life are completely codependent with each other. They can't be dealt with separately. And they have in the past -- they've tended to be dealt with separately. But again, your experience of the city is that you -- wherever you live and wherever you work -- you day-to-day experience something that either reinforces your sense that the city is livable or that it's not. And the resilience pieces might be a little harder to spot. So access to public space might be one. Another one would be your ease with which you can get around.
ROWESo how do you -- is it easy to get your kid to school? Is it easy to get to work? Is it easy to be able to make different choices if you have several things that you need to do in a day? And what about your access to cultural events, the kinds of things that enrich your lives? Getting to the library, getting to other aspects of urban life that really -- why you chose to live in that neighborhood in the first place. If you're obstructed from those things, if they're not accessible, if they don't seem to meet your needs because they're catering too much to somebody else's needs, if there's too much competitiveness around getting access to things, if the pool's only open in select hours and you need it in different hours -- all those kinds of things contribute to your experience of civic life.
ROWEAnd I think that there have been, increasingly over the last two decades, efforts in local cities, communities, to come up with tools that are perhaps more of a hybrid of what Carol and Carol have been talking about. So maybe some objective data -- what's the homelessness incidence? What's the type 2 diabetes incidence. What's the obesity rate? But also, what's your perception of your neighborhood? Do you feel you have the cultural amenities that you want? Do you have access to green space? All the kinds of things that I was just suggesting are measures. Can you get to the waterfront if there is one in your town?
FISHERBut are there...
ROWEThose kinds of things.
FISHERThose kinds of more subjective measures, are they comparable across different regions and across different countries? Is there the same cultural question I was asking earlier? Because I was in New York this weekend and somebody was boasting to me about how easy it was for their kids to walk to school. It was just a few blocks. And, you know, I -- friends in less-urban cities in California or Texas who actually consider their kids having to walk to school an imposition. And so, you know, people...
FISHER...in different areas would have different senses of what constitutes livability.
ROWEYeah. Exactly. And I think that's an important thing to be able to build into these tools. So that you can say if a particular community says, what's really important to me is to be able to have 24/7 amenities, because we have a workforce in this part of the country, for instance, where we have people working on shifts and they need to be able to go out and get groceries at four in the morning. That might be something quite different than, as you suggest, another community would value. So I'm -- I would encourage exactly what you're suggesting, that you need tools that work at both scales.
ROWENow, Carol and Carol are going to say, Look, if we've got a higher level of infant mortality in any particular urban environment, we want to know that because it's important for us to then dig into that data and figure out, why the hell is that happening? Why are we not seeing better outcomes in those neighborhoods. So I think we need to operate always on both scales. And I think actually people, themselves -- part of this is about agency. Can people engage in changing what's around them? And one of the difficulties with some of the larger macro data is it's stuff that you feel helpless about.
ROWEYou can't really contribute and it just makes you cynical or pessimistic or whatever -- or fearful. It can even make you fearful about things that are around you. Whereas, that more granular information, which is often subjective and which I'm afraid we tend to, you know, statisticians tend to be dismissive of subjective data. And I think that's unfortunate because subjective data is often stuff that you've wrapped your arms around and say, well, we're going to get motivated to contribute differently and change that outcome.
FISHERWell, let's hear from Carol Guthrie on that point of, you know, does -- when we over-quantify, as perhaps Mary Rowe would argue, these objective measures, are we basically giving people reasons to doubt their well-being or where they've chosen to live and that sort of thing?
GUTHRIEWell, I think she makes an important point, that all of these efforts have to work in tandem. And for instance, it's important to remember that the OECD's regional well-being work is something that we started, you know, quite recently. And we are in the process of adding additional indicators, as Paolo indicated, as soon as we can make sure that there is reliable, subjective data that can be gleaned across all of the OECD regions. We absolutely think we should be including that subjective data, precisely because you cannot get a full measure of real well-being from people without that.
GUTHRIEAnd, again, on our better life index, the idea of how people's networks support them or don't, how they feel about living in their community -- whether or not they feel supported by their government and by their own community -- is a very important part of the better life index, when we ask people to come and tell us how they feel about their community. So those things have to work in tandem.
FISHERLet's hear from Dick in King George, Va. Dick, you're on the air.
DICKYes. This is mostly anecdotal, and I'll try to keep it brief. I moved to King George from Philadelphia five years ago. I had to take a job and I work in the public sector. I meet people frequently. Anecdotally, I've been at historical societies. I've lived in New York. I was brought up in rural Minnesota. I went to join the historical society in King George and was promptly told, since I'm not from here, they couldn't imagine why I'd want to be a member. That seems to be pretty indicative of the experience I've had here. Because I've worked in Maryland, across the river -- across the Potomac -- and here in Virginia, I've noticed two things over five years in the people I've met here.
DICKAgain, this is totally anecdotal, but over here it's -- there are Baptists and fundamentalists primarily. They seem to have a very small and narrow world view. In Maryland, it tends to be Episcopalian and Catholic. And in the county I live in, they pride themselves and the adjoining county (word?), pride themselves in spending very little money in their educational systems and it shows. And Maryland, needless to say, spends a great deal of money on their school systems. When I look at attitudes my brothers have in rural Minnesota and that people in Maryland have regarding everything from recycling to energy use and what's existing here in Virginia, there's just a sea change.
DICKI -- you are talking to one of the happiest people you've ever talked to because I am leaving here in three weeks. And I cannot wait to get back to Philadelphia.
DICK(unintelligible) up here.
FISHERSo, thank you. So, Mary Rowe, obviously, people have different factors that they look at in determining their well-being. And I know you've done livability surveys in New York City over the years. As you look at different places around the country or around the world, you know, are there these very different kinds of expectations, different kinds of questions that reflect how people are feeling?
ROWEYes. Absolutely. And just as your caller suggested, and it's important that people find a place where they feel comfortable. Here's where I think I would speak to Carol and Carol's views, because one of the dilemmas you've got is that you might have parts of the country that are quite self-satisfied with what's going on, but the objective data might show, for instance, that they're generating high per-capita greenhouse gases. So, you know, at a policy level, we might be thinking, Oh, you know what, we really need to take these parts of the country denser and make it more economical and make, you know, and find ways to make the contributions -- the negative contributions of certain lifestyle choices less detrimental to the environment.
ROWESo that's an example where that objective data is quite important, to try to motivate change and say, Well, just because you don't want to walk your kid to school. Actually, it's a lot better for the environment if we start to locate people and schools in adjacent neighborhoods. So I think it's always that there's going to be tension here. And I think that neighborhoods and people, wherever they live, need to be challenged on both sides. They need to be challenged in terms of what works for them, but they need to be challenged, too, in terms of things that where they may not even be aware that they're not performing at the level that they could be performing.
FISHERAnd Carol Graham...
GRAHAMCan I jump in?
FISHERYeah. I was just going to...
GRAHAMOh, sorry. I wanted to jump in on that.
FISHERYeah, and I want to ask about -- I know you've done some work looking at whether people -- when people migrate. When they move from one place to another, are they generally happier after that? We heard from the caller that he, you know, made a move and he's not happy with it. What is the impact of moving around on people's sense of well-being?
GRAHAMOkay. Well, to -- and just quickly back to that other point. One of the big advantages of looking at both objective and subjective data together is that you get a sense of also what -- Mary mentioned the point about agency -- you get a sense of what people's expectations are and what they're able to do. And so we find, in very poor places, often, that people will report to be very satisfied with their health, even thought the indicators are terrible. Because they don't expect anything else and they really can't do much about it. That's an important data point, even though the objective and subjective data are telling us different things.
GRAHAMSo back to moving. We typically find that migrants are less happy or less satisfied with their lives than non-migrants. But it depends when you actually measure that. One issue is, how long have they assimilated yet? Have they been there long enough? When they first arrive, it's -- change is an unsettling thing, often not good for well-being in the short term -- over the long term can produce much better results. The second point is, we started to ask about the direction of causality and saying, maybe the people who left one place to go to another did so because they were not happy where they were before. They had higher expectations. They wanted a better life.
GRAHAMAnd so when you measure their well-being wherever they got, it may be lower than that of people who have been settled there a long time. But it may...
FISHERAnd we're going to have to leave it right there. Carol Graham, a senior fellow in global economy and development at the Brookings Institution. Thanks for joining us. Mary Rowe joined us from New York, where she's director of urban resilience and livability -- I still love that title -- at the Municipal Arts Society of New York. And Carol Guthrie is the head of the Washington Center for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Thanks to all of you for joining us. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Have a great day.
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