WASHINGTON - Is it time to offer day care for ailing older parents to give their care-giving children a break? Time for much bigger incentives for carpooling? Time to extend maternity and paternity leave substantially?
The answer's yes to all three if you accept the findings of a new kind of public attitude polling that's gaining influence with corporate leaders and in government policy circles worldwide.
It's called well-being research or, by those who want to be seen as especially rigorous practitioners, behavioral economics. Personal trainers and life coaches who borrow from the same findings often call it happiness research.
Whatever the word, its pioneers intend that quantified self-assessments of satisfaction will someday be as powerful as the gross domestic product and other economic measures.
Indeed, well-being research came into vogue because of a powerful limitation in economic measures that was first noticed around 1980: While United States, Japan and Britain reported huge personal income growth over time, their citizens reported not the slightest uptick in personal happiness.
That triggered a new quest to find out what mattered more to people than money. More recently, a key aim has been to apply those insights to devising public policies that might make people happier.
Early next year, for example, the Gallup Organization will ask a sample of residents in 26 U.S. cities such questions as: Do you feel safe? Do you have confidence in your city's leadership? Is your city tolerant of people who are different? Would you tell a friend to move here?
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the sponsor of the three-year $2.1 million survey, hopes that it'll show cities and their leaders what they need work on to improve well-being and productivity, said Paula Lynn Ellis, the vice president for national and new initiatives at the Miami-based philanthropy.
"We want to see if communities in which people are emotionally attached and engaged prosper more than others," Ellis said.
Luring and keeping talented workers will help, she added. "And that will likely depend, once basic service needs are met, on factors such as the city's lifestyle, openness and trust."
Ed Diener, a University of Illinois psychologist, thinks that nations should take the same approach, and not just for economic gain.
"With good information about what affects well-being, society will function better," Diener predicted recently.
"It promises governance from the people up," said John Helliwell, another leading well-being researcher and a Canadian economist who works with local governments.
Agreeing on how best to measure well-being remains a challenge, however. The Washington, D.C.-based Gallup Organization, the field's biggest and most influential commercial practitioner, relies on simple questions that defy evasion. For example, "Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?"
Another school of researchers, led by Nobel Prize-winning Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman and colleague Alan Krueger, an economist, asks respondents to keep diaries describing their feelings about each day's activities. (Top ranked: intimate relations. Worst bummer: commuting to work.)
Whatever the approach, respondents answer questions on a numeric scale_ 0 to 6, for example - so the results can be quantified. Computer-driven digestion of large numbers of responses yields lots of unexpected findings and ratifies others.
If people hate commuting, for example, but love socializing with co-workers, as Kahneman and Krueger found, promoting carpooling becomes an obvious policy option.
If the most creative young workers want to work in cities with visual pizzazz, as Gallup found, a little beautification can really pay off.
"You don't have to do it overnight," said Jim Clifton, Gallup's chairman and CEO. "You make a few improvements until, when you ask people whether the city is looking better, they say yes," Clifton continued. "The yes is everything."
He advises, among others, Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore's first and current prime ministers, respectively, on how the prosperous but famously sterile island nation can attract and retain highly talented workers.
To date, most of Gallup's well-being research has been used to help commercial companies such as Toyota of North America and Wal-Mart better understand their customers and workers.
This fall, however, it introduced "The State of Global Well-Being" survey, a $20 million undertaking that required roughly 1,000 interviews in each of 132 countries. It's aimed at global pulse-takers such as the United Nations, plus government and private international aid agencies as well as companies weighing foreign investments.
Helliwell, the Canadian well-being analyst, pursues a more local agenda: making city life happier. A key to that, he's found, is trust in one's neighbors, a quality that's abundant in old, unglamorous cities with stable populations such as Scranton, Pa. or St. John's, Newfoundland.
In more glamorous but impersonal cities, Helliwell promotes parks and dog-walking areas among the high-rises to help people meet. He likes libraries that are re-invented as computer cafes and are open late. He likes neighbors who rally spontaneously around a cause, such as driving out drug abusers, then stick together to identify and solve other community problems. He also likes town centers that really are town centers.
Often, "planners want to keep the downtown traffic moving and architects want beautiful buildings," Helliwell said. "There's no one who wants to make a public space into a civic living room."
For the kind of governance decisions that he describes, well-being studies that define, say, a city's most alienated neighborhoods, are likely to be just another argument - albeit a novel one - for more humane city planning.
Well-being research shines singular new light on other governance problems, such as deciding how much compensation people who live under airport noise deserve.
Take the case of Amsterdam's fast-growing - and noisy - Schiphol Airport. The traditional theory is that the real estate markets near airports adjust downward to compensate for noise. That doesn't hold for Schiphol, however, due to rent controls and a seven-year backlog of people waiting to buy homes in the Amsterdam area.
To determine how to compensate residents living under the airport's cone of noise, Dutch well-being researchers asked them a host of questions about their personal contentment, which included a few about how vexing they found airport noise. The results were overlaid on detailed maps of airport noise that indicated the decibel levels down to the level of two- or three- house clusters.
After adjusting for homes with balconies, patios and backyards that increased likely exposure to airport noise, as well as for variations in noise insulation, researchers derived precise payment scales for Schiphol noise compensation.
European governments are leaders in well-being research, generally speaking. Government surveys of households in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and Austria include sections on well-being.
In the United States, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based in Atlanta, recently conferred with Diener, the University of Illinois psychologist, about adding well-being questions to health surveys.
Diener declined comment after conferring with the CDC, but before doing so he suggested that the Centers wanted to explore well-known links between optimism and speedier recovery from illness.
McClatchy Newspapers 2007