The scientific study of individual wellbeing is booming and receiving unprecedented attention in media, medical, and retail spaces. But how are we all doing as a whole? How are the planet, our country, state, city, and neighborhood doing? Communities large and small across the globe have come together to solve problems and improve their collective quality of life. Neighbors – happy to live among each other, making their community better together. Anna Alexandrova, a philosopher of science at the University of Cambridge, public policy scholar Mark Fabian, and others have developed insights and discovered examples of how people can best help their communities thrive.
It’s Not All About You – Beyond iCulture
“The normal positive psychology approach to happiness is about having people learn mindfulness meditation, write gratefulness diaries, etc. It’s very individualistic. It would be a great shame if that’s all that community leaders learned about wellbeing,” says Alexandrova.
Indeed, collective wellbeing can be extremely undervalued, especially in a culture prone to individualism. The era of cupcakes instead of cake, craft cocktails instead of punch, selfies, iPhones, iPads, i-everything.
“It’s much more important for them to think about their community as a whole,” Alexandrova continued. “Not just the collection of individuals who are happy or unhappy, but rather as a healthy functioning body where people can rely on each other and come together and do things together.”
"Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much."
— Helen Keller
Global to Local Wellbeing: Happiness Matters and Measures
The good news is more governments are officially factoring happiness and wellbeing into public policy. The Bhutan Gross National Happiness Index launched into public consciousness when King Jigme Singye Wangchuck proclaimed that Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product. The United Nations has since convened the global meeting “Happiness and Wellbeing: Defining a New Economic Paradigm” and established the Global Happiness Center from their Sustainable Development Solutions Network, where Gallup publishes official statistics for global wellbeing.
There’s a wealth of countries now collecting measures of wellbeing, including The United States Center For Disease Control, which reports Quality of Life data and Wellbeing Concepts; the United Kingdom’s Office of National Statistics Wellbeing statistics, Welsh Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, New Zealand’s Wellbeing indicators, and the Australian Capital Territory – OECD Regional Well-Being indicators. Examples of cities with wellbeing programs include Live Well San Diego and Santa Monica’s Wellbeing Index-Project in California.
Various programs track different data points. When considering public policy initiatives, Bhutan considers psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural and ecological diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, and living standards.
“High-level theory of wellbeing is a theory about what is good for us as human beings to flourish and grow at the highest level of abstraction. It’s what philosophy usually is about when they talk about wellbeing,” says Alexandrova. “If you are a city counselor trying to figure out how to spend your small budget making people better off in your town, these high-level things won’t help you very much.”
For the most part, she says that people such as local policy officials, city counselors, local organization heads, HR officers, and charity workers, when making decisions about wellbeing, rather than operating at this highest level of abstraction, are helping people in specific situations of concern. “I came up with mid-level theory to capture the need to adapt the abstract high theories of wellbeing to specific circumstances,” says Alexandrova.
Examples of diverse community wellbeing issues the experts shared include mental health in schools, successful students and schools, how to resettle refugees, children of first-time mothers, the need for more trees, air pollution, generational change, community vitality, overfishing, potholes, how long it takes to get an appointment with a local doctor, poor water quality, coastal and fire-vulnerable communities affected by climate change, gentrification, and issues pertaining to declining rust-belt cities.
“A healthy community means more than just a collection of fulfilled individuals,” says Alexandrova. “It is also about the social conditions and the infrastructure capable of including the marginalized, providing a safe space for different lifestyles, or shielding humans from disasters.”
“What I try to tell young people is that if you come together with a mission, and it’s grounded with love and a sense of community, you can make the impossible possible.”
— John Lewis
Power to the People: You and Your Neighbors
Fabian says that to complement top-down standardized metrics, he would like to see “much more of a bottom-up approach where communities are empowered, perhaps with participatory budgeting and governing, to define what policies they think would improve their wellbeing, define what wellbeing means to them,” says Fabian. “I think in being more multi-dimensional about what matters, we inevitably pay more attention to the complexity of citizens’ lives.”
If you’re a community leader or a neighbor ready to improve your community, expert-recommended resources to help you get started include platforms such as Strong Towns that help facilitate local conversation groups, community action, and offers virtual and IRL presentations and workshops. The Strong Towns Action Lab houses how-to guides, case studies, and downloadable resources to help build strong communities.
Recommended books include Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam; Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design by journalist Charles Montgomery; and Blue Zones by National Geographic Explorer Dan Buettner.
There are community wellbeing podcasts, stories, government agencies connected with child welfare and community wellbeing, foundations, and public health engagement, “And there are many Twitter and YouTube accounts posting lots of material along these lines,” says Dan Haybron, Professor of Philosophy at Saint Louis University.
“Wellbeing is complex and has different dimensions. The ideal of a flourishing community is also bound to be historically and culturally relative to some extent,” says Alexandrova who suggests learning from specific cases rather than overall models.
Case studies and stories on the Strong Towns Action Lab include “The Antidote to Powerlessness? Try Planting Street Trees,” “How the Modest Walk Can Connect You to Your Community,” and “Can a Neighborhood Rebuild Wealth for the People Who Actually Live There?”
"For a community to be whole and healthy, it must be based on people’s love and concern for each other."
— Millard Fuller
Schools, Community Centers, and Pubs: The Importance of Social Infrastructure
One of the most influential factors leading to neighborhood wellbeing is social infrastructure. Namely libraries, public spaces, community centers, etc. When these are vibrant, inclusive, and accessible, they are sites for building social capital and strengthening the community,” says Alexandrova, emphasizing the importance of preserving public spaces where people are genuinely doing things together and aren’t frightened, disconnected, and disengaged. Somewhere the community can, for example, use the internet to apply for a job, where community groups can come together for meetings, or simply where you can go to connect with someone. “The recent destruction of public spaces in American cities and towns has been devastating.”
Schools for school-related events such as plays and sports also serve that function, “but additional community infrastructure sites are needed,” says Fabian. “In the UK, that includes community pubs. In Australia, Scout Halls are rented out for community events to have karate classes, for example, or where the community can meet and just bond.”
Beauty, Trees, and Loving Where You Live
“We are aesthetic beings, and we read emotional cues from our environment even when we don’t realize it,” says Alexandrova. “Space around us can make us feel small, compressed, oppressed, and in contrast, relaxed, respected, cared for.”
Gallup’s “Soul of the Community” report, a study conducted in 26 cities across the United States, revealed what emotionally attaches people to a community. “John de Graaf has been doing really cool work on beauty,” says Haybron, “which Gallup data suggests is a driver of community satisfaction.”
Safe and healthy homes and access to culture, parks, and recreation can all be markers of a flourishing community.
Measuring Neighborhood Wellbeing
Even the best intentions can go astray. Communities and taxpayers shoulder huge public investments that don’t yield desirable results. Journalists and community organizations have chronicled, for instance, how auto-oriented neighborhoods perpetuate and exacerbate economic and social injustice. On a smaller scale, many cities neglect to plant and maintain pedestrian-friendly shade trees, despite costing a miniscule fraction of their road paving (and road expanding) budgets.
The New York Times, The Brookings Institute, and the Congress for New Urbanism provide excellent information about proposed projects in Atlanta, Buffalo, Detroit, New Orleans, New York, Tampa, and other cities looking to reclaim auto-centric areas and rebuild people-centric communities by replacing highway sections that blight neighborhoods with parks and other projects that champion walkable, thriving urbanism.
Fabian has seen researchers effectively work with the community to develop a survey of 30 items, measuring and tracking the community’s satisfaction annually. He suggests finding a place with less wellbeing than another place, figuring out why, and then doing something to address it. “You could just ask people, ‘What do you think would improve your wellbeing here? How can we measure that?’ And then you’ve immediately got some reform prioritization,” says Fabian. “Oftentimes, if we start with the metrics, then it’s difficult for us to identify a lot of the reform priorities because we’re simply not measuring them.”
Trust, including trusting the police, belonging, support within the community, and generosity are also measures. “There are famous studies where researchers left fake wallets with some cash in them around the streets. Then they measure the likelihood that those wallets will be returned with no expectation of reciprocity rather than people just taking the money and leaving,” says Fabian. “People generally look out for each other.”
“There is no perfect indicator of wellbeing, and any indicator can be gamed or lose validity. So instead of chasing that perfect indicator, we should instead be truly on the inside of such programs, watch them at work in different circumstances, really listen to people. This sounds impractical only because we have been fed the ideal that this hard work can be replaced by a robust and valid indicator that the expert passes on to the community from the center. That’s a dangerous fiction,” says Alexandrova. “Nothing replaces diverse local expertise.”
Alene Dawson is a Southern California-based writer known for her intelligent and popular features, cover stories, interviews, and award-winning publications. She’s a regular contributor to the LA Times.