How is the success of a community measured?
For some, that simple question is answered by the number of luxury cars lining the city streets, or by the size of wallets bulging out of back pockets.
But an increasing number of community leaders, health professionals and government officials — including Gov. Terry Branstad — are saying the size of a smile on someone’s face and their sense of well being is as important as the bottom line of a quarterly financial report.
“Wellness affects GDP and median household income,” said Nancy Quellhorst, the president and CEO of the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce. “Well people produce better and consume fewer health care dollars. Our businesses are burdened by the high cost of health care and changes to our health landscape will provide both an economic and quality of life advantage.”
Why be happy and healthy?
Both Iowa City and Cedar Rapids are attempting to receive Blue Zone designation — which is the cornerstone effort of Branstad’s initiative to raise wellness. (story continues after chart)
“I would get very depressed, so this was a tool to get me out if it, to laugh,” said Teddy Bruns, a laughter yoga instructor from Cedar Falls.
Bruns said she has traveled across the state, teaching a unique blend of stretching, breathing, and, of course, laughing to everyone from senior citizens to state judges.
“Businesses all over the place want this,” she said. “Because everyone is so stressed, they need to have an outlet to let go, and laughter is the best way to do that.”
Relieving stress in the workplace is something Molly McWilliam, a wellness coach for MercyCare Business Health Solutions, said can not only have an impact on a work environment, but can translate to people feeling better about their overall outlook on life.
“I think a lot of employers are seeing (having happy and healthy employees) as being crucial to their companies success,” she said. “And I think that can also play into the success of a city.”
And according to Kevin Leicht, the chair of the University of Iowa’s department of Sociology and the director of the Iowa Social Science Research Center, the success of a city is inexorably intertwined with the well being of its citizens.
“A high quality of life helps you to keep people in your community. People who are important and valuable,” he said. “[If cities] get behind in amenities and people start to leave, once you get an exodus going it is pretty hard to cut it off.”
One local companys that invests heavily in itsr employee’s well being is the Iowa-based Internet domain registration company Go Daddy, and Lane Jarvis, their chief human resources officer says it has led to continued growth.
“We love being ranked highly on [work environment] indexes,” she said, adding their morale building work has included activities like whitewater rafting trips and wine tastings. “We have never stopped investing in and rewarding our employees, and that is a formula that works.”
How do we know we are well?
There are numerical rankings for everything from healthiest and most livable cities, to best places to grow old and die.
But one index in particular — the Gallup Healthway’s Well-Being Index — was identified a year ago by Branstad as the index in which he wants Iowa to be ranked number one by 2016.
But with a vast array of indexes to choose from, with many differing in methodology and accuracy, city officials said it was more important to focus on programs that will have a positive impact rather than on a numerical ranking.
“There are policy issues that the city got behind, the council got behind, to make improvements on our community. We didn’t specifically support the NewBo City Market because it is going to move us up 6 notches on the index,” said Ron Corbett, the mayor of Cedar Rapids. “All these things will collectively move us up the list, and if you do nothing, then you will just fall behind.
So where does Iowa stack up against the competition?
Iowa’s current ranking of 16th healthiest state in the index is a composite of six categories: life evaluation (27th), emotional health (eighth), physical health (11th), healthy behavior (36th), work environment (23rd), and basic access (sixth).
City officials said they are never going to take direct action regarding a ranking in an index.
“There are so many of these indexes out there now on just about everything,” said Tom Markus, the city manager for Iowa City. “On any index, you need to drill down and find out what information was actually accumulated, what the question was, and how that information relates to that.”
Markus said that there have been times that the city government has focused on an index and identified issues that were brought to light, but to allow each index to influence policy decisions isn’t practical.
“I would say it is more than a grain of salt, but (indexes) do not become the Holy Grail, the ends to the means to move up there on some list or ranking,” Corbett said. “But you do have to be aware of what other cities are doing and there is a healthy competition among cities for people, jobs and developments. So you have to keep your finger on the pulse for the trends.”
The bottom line
Ultimately, does an index, and more broadly, well being, matter?
Last month, the AP reported that Ben Bernanke, the chair of the Federal Reserve said, “We should seek better and more direct measurements of economic well being… (Promoting well being is) the ultimate objective of our policy decisions.”
However some local economic leaders said they are squarely focused on measures like economic output, capital investment, and GDP rather than zeroing in on the happiness of consumers.
“We are familiar with the happiness rankings, but, they are not something we use to benchmark our progress or success,” said Doug Neumann, the executive vice president for the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance.
But city officials say, regardless of their ranking, they will continue to plug away at initiatives like Blue Zones, increasing bike friendliness, and healthy food promotions as a way to increase their city’s wellness.
And through these efforts, Tim Albrecht, the governor’s spokesman, said he thinks Gov. Branstad’s goal of being number one is still within reach.
“We believe it is,” he said. “In fact, we have been encouraged and excited by the level of interest from our communities.”
And Leicht said even if people have reservations about a specific poll, Gov. Branstad’s decision to focus on one and identify a lofty goal was an intelligent choice.
“I think it is actually a good idea,” he said. “Even if you don’t want to put too much reliance on the poll, if you look at the different dimensions that are measured. Moving from 16th to 1st place is very ambitious, but he is at least talking about movement that is significant. So chances are if we actually move from 16th to 10th or 7th, that would be a big enough change that the average person would notice.”