Mayor Pam O'Connor (File photo)
Mayor Pam O’Connor (File photo)

“The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the only legitimate object of good government.” — Thomas Jefferson, 1809


It’s over 200 years later and that statement has never been more true. Through the Mayors Challenge by Bloomberg Philanthropies, cities were invited to propose their most innovative solutions to entrenched problems. The five solutions with the greatest potential for success will win funding to turn those ideas into reality.

My city, Santa Monica, answered this call to action with what I believe is the greatest, most challenging and pressing issue of all: protecting and promoting human well-being. Specifically, how can cities use limited resources more effectively to create conditions needed for people to thrive?

It’s a big idea. We will use the science behind well-being to measure and intentionally improve it in our city. Why? Because well-being is the foundation for a stronger, more resilient community of people empowered to solve their own problems. By looking through the lens of well-being, the city will know whether or not we’re making the most effective use of resources to meet people’s needs. This will fundamentally change the relationship between citizen and government.

Our idea might seem a little out there to some, but well-being theory is well-established outside the public sector, backed by decades of research conducted around the world. Its use within government, especially at the local level, has tremendous potential. Bloomberg Philanthropies agreed. They gave us a chance to explore, expand, and refine our idea when they pulled our “well-being project” out from a pool of over 300 proposals, and named Santa Monica a Top 20 Finalist.

Well-being is not to be confused with wellness, although it’s easy to do. Well-being is a state characterized by a person’s level of fulfillment, engagement, satisfaction, positive outlook, and health (or wellness).

Things that contribute to people’s well-being aren’t a mystery. Jobs, relationships, health, education, and our physical surroundings all play a part — and they’re all experienced at the local level. This means that cities are uniquely positioned to make decisions based on their potential to positively impact community well-being. So, why don’t we?

What has been missing, so far, is a way to get a solid understanding of community well-being — the empirical what, why and how that will lead to long-term social change. We know that well-being can be measured, and what is measured can be managed. We will team up with top economists, behavioral scientists, and psychologists working in the field of well-being theory to develop the Local Well-being Index — the ruler that’s been missing from the toolbox of good governance for far too long.

Once we know what well-being looks like in our community — where it’s strong, where it’s weak — we will be able to make better-informed decisions that intentionally improve well-being in our community.

Cities are under constant pressure to do more with less, especially in today’s economic climate. Budgets are shrinking and new funding is drying up. Cities must become smarter about making the most of what we have. Using index findings doesn’t mean that we’ll create new programs every time well-being dips in a particular area. Rather, analytics will help us set policies and direct scarce resources in ways that support exactly what people need to thrive.

Over the course of 20 years in public service, I’ve found that the best course of action is not always obvious. Were Thomas Jefferson here today, I believe he would say that well-being is the key to the care of human life and happiness. And I believe well-being is the next step in the natural evolution of local government.


O’Connor serves as the mayor of Santa Monica and was elected to the City Council in 1994. To vote in the Mayors Challenge and see a full list of finalists, visit

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