Certain aspects of a neighborhood, including its ethnic diversity and the availability of public transit, are associated with better reported well-being among residents, according to a study published Wednesday in PLOS One.
Researchers used data from an existing survey called the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index. From 2010 to 2012, more than 300,000 Americans were asked about their overall well-being, including how much they enjoyed their lives. They then cross-referenced people’s individual well-being scores to the counties where they resided, hoping to find if any of the over 70 community attributes they looked at were associated with higher scores.
Ultimately, they found certain factors were independently linked to higher well-being. Collectively, they accounted for 91 percent of the variation between people’s individual scores. These factors could be broken into four categories, from the demographics of a neighborhood to the average education of its residents.
Living in a county with a higher percentage of black residents, which the researchers used as a measure of ethnic diversity, was associated with greater well-being, as was living in a place where it was easier to commute to work via bike or public transit. Higher income, as you might expect, was similarly linked to a better outlook on life. But access to preventative healthcare was even more important: Greater well-being was associated with living in a neighborhood where women got more mammograms or with more federally funded community health centers. Many of these factors were also associated with reported greater life satisfaction.
The study is far from the first to find that where we live can influence our outlook on life, but the authors say theirs is one of the largest and most comprehensive of its kind.
“A strength of our study was that we included so many diverse factors from so many different community sectors,” lead author Britta Roy, an assistant professor of medicine and Director of Population Health at the Yale School of Medicine, told Gizmodo via email. “We used a robust, step-wise process to eliminate redundancy among these interrelated factors to isolate the ones that were independently correlated.”
A greater sense of well-being isn’t just a matter of feeling good about your life, Roy noted. “Prior studies have shown that place matters for health and well-being,” she said. “Further, our research team at Yale previously reported that county-level well-being was associated with life expectancy.”
That said, the findings have their limitations. Namely, that these are only associations, not direct proof that living in a neighborhood with lots of bike lanes makes people’s lives better. “We were also limited to data available at the county level, which meant we were unable to include data on social factors as we had hoped to,” Roy said. These social factors could include the level of support people feel they have in their lives or how tolerant they are of other people’s cultures.
Still, Roy and her team believe their research points to ways that cities and states can make their communities healthier. All of the factors they looked at, such as the level of child poverty or people’s access to higher education, can be improved through collaborations with policymakers and public health experts, Roy noted. These improvements might include everything from laws and programs that reduce child poverty rates to the redesigning of cities to allow for more efficient public transit.