Subjective wellbeing and the city.

AuthorMorrison, Philip S.


The Quality of Life surveys administered biennially in New Zealand provide an opportunity to estimate the contribution different places make to our happiness, satisfaction and quality of life. While the greater part of the variance in our responses to subjective wellbeing questions is typically due to our health, age, employment status, income, family and household relationships, the particular city in which we live may also contribute to our wellbeing. How we measure that contribution, its magnitude and its source, is of considerable interest both conceptually and to local authorities seeking to improve the social wellbeing of their residents. This paper presents the results of an ordered probit regression model of the distribution of respondents over levels of happiness, satisfaction and quality of life in 2004. Even after controlling for characteristics of individuals known to influence their ratings of their own wellbeing, there remain marked place effects, which suggest characteristics of cities may also have an independent influence on wellbeing. Discerning the reasons for these place differences requires further work both conceptually and empirically. In the meantime, these initial results do raise important questions about why we choose to live where we do, the scope of that choice and its consequences for our wellbeing.


One of the distinct changes in the way we think about economic and social policy in New Zealand is our greater contemporary awareness of our geography, of the fact that we each live our lives in often quite different spatial contexts, and that these characteristics of place can shape and condition the way we conduct and feel about our lives. Not only are we now more aware of the uniqueness of place, but ensuring that the settlements in which we live contribute positively to our wellbeing is now mandated in legislation through the Local Government Act (2002) and bolstered by the recent introduction of the health impact assessment framework (HIA).

Our attention to local wellbeing comes on the heels of a range of indicator-monitoring reports covering other social, economic, environmental and cultural conditions in New Zealand. These include Monitoring Progress towards a Sustainable New Zealand (Statistics New Zealand 2002) (2) produced by the Sustainable Development Indicators Working Group, the ongoing Living Standards indicator work undertaken by the Centre for Social Research and Evaluation in the Ministry of Social Development, (3) notably the New Zealand Living Standards 2004 (Jensen et al. 2006), and the Social Report (Ministry of Social Development 2006). Associated with this body of work on our social wellbeing are a variety of protocols and frameworks. (4)

The Quality of Life project, whose 2004 data we use here, provides complementary information on a range of conditions in a number of individual cities. (5) The 1999 National Indicators project was initiated by the councils of the six largest cities in New Zealand--Auckland, Waitakere, North Shore, Manukau, Wellington and Christchurch. Their aim was to measure quality of life in each of these council jurisdictions through the use of key indicators. These included health, the built environment, sense of belonging, community cohesion, community safety, housing, education, employment and the economy, democracy, and participation in community affairs. Along with responses on these topics, the survey also collected data on the demographics and socio-economic characteristics of respondents, as well as recording their suburban residential location.

The number of settlements was expanded to 12 in 2004 to include the districts of Rodney, Tauranga, and the cities of Hamilton, Porirua, Lower Hutt and Dunedin. To meet the needs of the Ministry of Social Development with respect to their Social Report, a further sample of 1,500 interviews were conducted with those living outside the 12 cities/districts, and are referred to as the Rest of New Zealand. (6)

The focus of the Quality of Life survey on the role of place in wellbeing is an overdue complement to the extensive work undertaken on the economic contributions made by different regions. (7) While we have long considered the contribution of particular regions to our national growth, we have paid only scant attention to measuring the contribution these same places might make to our wellbeing as we choose to represent it. The implicit assumption of course is that the two go hand in hand. The fact that they simply do not (as the time series analysis for several countries including Japan and the United States show) has been one of the primary motivators for the rapid expansion of international work on subjective wellbeing over the last three decades (the seminal papers here are Easterlin 1973, Easterlin 1974). (8)

This study tests an implicit assumption in the dominant aspatial thinking about wellbeing, namely that once we control for personal characteristics, places all yield the same level of subjective wellbeing to their residents. We question this assumption empirically by estimating a multivariate model of subjective wellbeing in which responses to three different quality of life questions--on happiness, satisfaction and quality of life--are regressed on the fixed effects of cities after controlling for a range of characteristics of the respondents known to affect subjects' wellbeing. (9) The purpose is not only to identify the presence of settlement effects, but also to see if we can estimate the magnitude of their relative influence. (10)

The paper begins with a general background to subjective wellbeing, its relationship to place and the possible implications such measures might have for the planning and management of our primary settlements. We also refer to the growing international interest in the way in which subjective wellbeing varies geographically. The survey instrument is described and the variables used in the regression are identified. The results are presented graphically and this is followed by a discussion of the next steps we want to take.


The policy potential of measures of subjective wellbeing has been highlighted by the recent work on the economics of happiness (Easterlin 2002, Easterlin 2006, Frey and Stutzer 2002a, Layard 2005, Bruni and Porta 2006, Lane 2000). Building on several decades of earlier work by psychologists (e.g. Kahneman et al. 1999) and epidemiologists (e.g. Wilkinson 2005), the major contribution by these economists has been to demonstrate the connection between external events (or shocks, in economic parlance), individuals and changes in subjective wellbeing. (11) Their work has opened the door for the consideration of a wide range of "external" events on wellbeing including the impact of and changes to the local physical and social environments of cities. (12)

Much of the early research on subjective wellbeing involved comparing the quality of life of countries using available development indicators such as GDP (Veenhoven 1993). As countries develop their own measures of subjective wellbeing, we are seeing a further application of these surveys to sub-national areas, from regions through cities to neighbourhoods (Veenhoven 2002). At the same time, while we now have an extensive corpus of data research on subjective wellbeing within and between countries, we still know little about how and why subjective measures of wellbeing vary within countries either conceptually or empirically. The big gap lies within understanding of the relationship between subjective wellbeing and place within countries. At present, we lack an understanding of the geography of our subjective wellbeing.

Subjective Wellbeing

Subjective wellbeing refers to those measures that tap the feelings of the subjects involved. Subjective wellbeing is not a single unitary construct; people can have high levels of wellbeing if they feel satisfied with the conditions of their lives (cognitive wellbeing), and/or if they experience frequent pleasant emotions (affective wellbeing) (Andrews and Withey 1976, Lucas et al. 1996), and if they feel they are improving their quality of life (what I am calling here achievement wellbeing). (13)

The cognitive, affective and achievement dimensions of wellbeing are embodied in the following three questions asked in the 2004 Quality of Life survey, and it is the responses to these three questions which we analyse in the pages to follow. (14)

Q13. In general, how happy or unhappy would you say you are? Very happy, happy, neutral, unhappy, very unhappy [Don't know]

Q14. Taking everything into account, how satisfied or dissatisfied are you with your life in general these days? Very satisfied, satisfied, neutral, dissatisfied, very dissatisfied [Don't know]

Q34. Would you say that overall your quality of life is: Extremely good, good, neutral, poor, extremely poor [Don't know]

Questions on subjective wellbeing have been collected since the end of the second world war in the United States and since the early 1990s in Europe (Frey and Stutzer 2002b). Only in recent years, however, have academics had the confidence in the robustness of these responses to use them widely as dependent variables in multivariate modelling contexts. (15)

In its simplest form the argument is that, "Happiness is feeling good, and misery is feeling bad", as Layard put it, for "at every moment we feel somewhere between wonderful and half-dead, and that feeling can now be measured by asking people or by monitoring their brains" (Layard 2005). Indeed, the two forms of measurement yield very similar results as do third-party assessments of happiness levels. (16) After many years of debate, it is now generally accepted that responses to questions on subjective wellbeing are reliable and relatively robust. (17) If modelled appropriately responses to these questions can not only identify consistent correlations with...

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