Measuring Wellbeing to Help Communities Thrive

RAND Solution

Aerial view of Santa Monica city and beach


Putting wellbeing at the heart of local policymaking, urban planning, and resource allocation is key to helping communities thrive. But wellbeing is difficult to measure. And few efforts have measured wellbeing and integrated those results into policies and programs.


A group planting and watering a community garden

Photo by FangXiaNuo/Getty Images

Wellbeing is more than just physical health. It covers all aspects of a person, including the skills and opportunities he or she needs to live a meaningful life. In urban areas, wellbeing is more than just the health of a community. It also includes residents' satisfaction, connectedness, and ability to reach full potential. (Other dimensions of wellbeing include community connections, characteristics of place, learning, and economic opportunity.)

The city of Santa Monica, California, wanted to incorporate wellbeing into city planning, policies, and programs. But first it needed a way to measure community wellbeing.

“Wellbeing is about individuals and communities having the skills and opportunities to construct meaningful futures.”

Anita Chandra

Project Description

One of five cities to win the Bloomberg Philanthropies' inaugural Mayor's Challenge, Santa Monica used its $1,000,000 award to develop and implement the first local Wellbeing Index. RAND researchers, as part of a team of experts that made up the Wellbeing Project, created the Wellbeing Index.

The Wellbeing Project had three phases:

  1. Define wellbeing at the community level.
  2. Measure wellbeing using administrative data, resident surveys, and social media data, and more.
  3. Help address wellbeing needs by working with community partners and residents to create effective strategies.

The Wellbeing Index aimed to assess wellbeing in Santa Monica and create a framework for the city to discuss how government, community partners, and residents could work together to help the community thrive.

Research Questions

  1. What is the best way to measure community wellbeing?
  2. What is the state of Santa Monica residents' wellbeing?
  3. How can officials integrate wellbeing into city planning?
  4. How can government, community partners, and residents work together to improve wellbeing?

Key Findings & Recommendations

Key Findings

Researchers identified several challenges facing Santa Monica.

  • Residents were not as healthy as expected.
  • Many residents lacked strong social connections and a sense of neighborhood cohesion.
  • Younger residents reported difficulties related to community connection and overall personal outlook or wellbeing.
  • Latino residents reported low wellbeing.
  • Wellbeing strengths and needs differed by zip code.
  • Gaps in overall wellbeing for men in the areas of community, health, and learning would benefit from greater attention.
  • Housing was an issue for one in five residents.
  • Almost one-third of residents experienced stress some or all of the time.
  • Many residents volunteer and vote, but few feel that they have influence in decisionmaking.


Santa Monica can increase wellbeing for its residents in the following ways.

  • Create community spaces for social engagement, particularly spaces that target young and middle-aged people.
  • Develop programs that help neighbors interact.
  • Create citywide activities that better use outdoor space.
  • Explore opportunities to expand the role of residents in shared decisionmaking.
  • Explore why Latino residents have low levels of wellbeing. Partner with Latino-serving agencies to create opportunities to improve wellbeing.
  • Create programs to facilitate financial literacy and mitigate financial stress.
  • Consider how to increase job placement opportunities.

“These city-wide findings help us tailor policies to those who really need help.”

Lisa Parson, Office of Civic Wellbeing, City of Santa Monica


The Wellbeing Project helped Santa Monica use growing partnerships between government and nongovernmental organizations. The city also used the index to build on established efforts that track progress in environmental health, open space and land use, economic development and housing, and human dignity.

Creating the Wellbeing Index also helped the city of Santa Monica

  • establish the current state of wellbeing of the city and its residents
  • discover new ways to include city administrative and program data, resident experience data, and social media data to better understand wellbeing
  • use wellbeing dimensions to frame its strategic plan and to inform all policy and program decisions
  • help other cities integrate wellbeing into their measurement and planning through the dissemination of Santa Monica's results and outreach efforts.

“We are still uncovering new layers of information to shape policies, priorities, and resources.”

Julie Rusk, assistant director, Department of Community and Cultural Services, City of Santa Monica