What matters for happiness? 563 households in Sydney explain…

Take note: Urban planners, public health professionals, researchers of links between cities and health indicators.

City practitioners and urban researchers need to incorporate perceptions of the built environment into data monitoring efforts.  They must ensure that for their cities they evaluate subjective appraisals of life; including how these link to physical and mental health indicators.

Human health requires people “to think that they are living good lives”. This is called subjective well-being. Elements in the built environment can affect this. We measured elements – both as perceived and objectively – that can support the affective (felt) and cognitive (thought) components of subjective well-being for a cohort of 562 households in Sydney, Australia. We found that people who perceive their neighbourhood to be more walkable, aesthetically pleasing and hosting a well-connected community were more likely to express feelings of well-being and life satisfaction. This more hidden component of healthy places is very important but all too often overlooked.

We already know: A positive appraisal of one’s life and circumstances is an integral component of human health and the concept of subjective well-being is increasingly used as a policy measure for economic development and social progress. The link between the way cities are planned and managed, and subjective well-being is widely acknowledged; however empirical validation of this relationship is lacking. Previous relevant research has linked broad, objective built environment variables with various components of subjective well-being. The understandings generated do not usually combine perceived measures of both large-scale and detailed built environment elements with how people feel and think about their well-being.

What’s new: We combined multiple measures of the built environment alongside multiple measures of subjective well-being. Both objective and perceived measures of the built environment were incorporated into this novel approach. Our results highlight the importance of people’s perception, and also less easily defined variables such as neighbourhood aesthetics and community connection, for shaping subjective well-being and human health. This finding highlights the relative importance of the ‘individual’ in the link between the built environment and health. Our study can help cities and researchers re-think the emphasis between individual people and the built environment when creating healthier places.

Implications for city policy and practice: Those involved with health in cities, as practitioners, researchers or in communities, must incorporate perception into all appraisals of the impact of place on happiness. Land use planning, public health and many other disciplines, are being lured to adopt a big data approach, often providing with dashboards of indicators, as a way to demonstrate that their decisions are evidence based. Technology has endowed us with unprecedented capacity to monitor built form, but this has meant that indicators of progress are usually construed of entirely objective measures. For well-being, however, attention must also be placed on incorporating perception into data monitoring efforts. Every city needs to makes an effort to evaluate subjective appraisals of life, and investigate the local link to physical and mental health indicators. People living in urban environments have their own histories and narratives, and, as overwhelming as it may seem, these complexities will shape the way they relate to place, including the way place can encourage a healthy lifestyle.

Full article: The objective and perceived built environment: What matters for happiness?

Authors: Jennifer Kent (@jenniferleekent), Liang Ma (@liangmapsu) and Corinne Mulley (@MulleyPT)