Santa Fe has a brutal cost of living when compared to the average annual income of individual citizens. Rents and home prices are high; food costs are above average; and a quarter barely makes a parking meter budge around here. Meanwhile, the average per capita income hovers below $30,000. That’s not bad by New Mexico standards, but then New Mexico boasts one of the lowest per capita median income levels in the country. Most Santa Feans, however, will tell you they enjoy a high quality of life. How is this possible?

Social scientists and economists are pretty sure it’s some combination of culture, clean air, natural beauty, good schools, libraries, bike paths, open spaces and other far-flung factors, but quantifying those attributes into a measurable, understandable, um, thing seems about as futile as assigning a value to God or love or Canadian rock music. Yet we believe that solving this equation would allow us to judge the success of social policy, the effectiveness of legislation, the importance of environmental conservation and the ability of different regions to attract high-paying jobs and clean, beneficial industries.

The annual

routinely attempts this assessment by assigning New York City a score of 100, and then assessing other cities by how they measure against the Big Apple as judged through “life satisfaction” surveys and more readily measurable data, such as pollution, crime, divorce rates and infrastructure. Mercer’s assessment is confined to populations far larger than that of Santa Fe, however; in the 2010 study, Vienna, Austria, has the best quality of life in the world and Baghdad, Iraq, has the worst. The highest-ranking American city is Honolulu, coming in as the 32nd best city for quality of life.

The Economist magazine uses the same data sets through a slightly different lens and

remarkably similar outcomes. Strangely, however, Pittsburgh tops the list of American cities for The Economist. Another

quality-of-life measurement system, the

, puts a far greater emphasis on a region’s ecological footprint and suggests a radically different reality in which Costa Ricans are significantly happier than, say, Austrians, and are therefore presumed to have a superior quality of life.

No one has an easy answer but, because notions about quality of life are central (if confusing) components of economic development and strong communities, we put out the following question:

How would you quantify quality of life in economic terms?

Fabian Trujillo, Santa Fe Economic Development Division director

“There are a lot of quality-of-life indicators. Some of the indicators we talk about are education, safety, availability of health care, and the political and economic stability of a region. We also consider culture and recreation areas. In Santa Fe, the preservation of culture and heritage is important to us, as is ensuring a low impact on the environment. Those are big things we talk about in economic development. We’re looking to create high-paying jobs and to attract the businesses that bring those jobs and, at the same time, we want to make sure those businesses respect the environment and the culture and are able to increase the livability standard for the people who are working for them.

“There are five industries the City of Santa Fe has identified in our economic development strategy: media, such as film and publishers; green business, which includes renewable energy, positive energy, solar, wind and biomass; knowledge-based, such as biotech companies, medical, finance, complexity science; technology, which is related to knowledge-based and includes software and technology-related development companies; and arts and culture, maintaining Santa Fe arts and culture, cultural tourism, helping museums learn how to export and grow their businesses.”

Susan Witt, education director, New Economics Institute

“We’re doing a lot of work on well-being indicators. Essentially, we’ve found that a sense of well-being is not directly correlated with the amount of things that you have. You need a certain level of comfort and of security in the physical world, as extreme poverty does not relate to well-being. But once that threshold is met, which varies by countries, increased well-being doesn’t necessary correlate with amount of things. It has to do more with intangibles, such as social relationships, a sense of community and a healthy environment.”

Kevin Kargacin, senior program manager at University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research

“It’s not a subject of measure; it’s more of a quality indicator. For a lot of people, I’d say quality of life has something to do with the amount of income you have. There are lots of things that money fixes and, if you are destitute and below the poverty level, regardless of many good things, you may have a tough time with the quality of your life. It’s not an easy answer because, while income is important to quality of life, it isn’t the only thing. For example, you could have a very high income but have poor health. Health is an important thing for quality of life, which probably means eating right, feeling vigorous as well as being relatively disease-free. So it’s more than one thing, but I’d rank those two fairly high. Like they say, when you’ve got your health, you’ve got everything.”

Kate Noble, City of Santa Fe economic development specialist

“I wouldn’t [quantify it]. Quality of life is made up of a lot of different factors, hard to quantify economically. The feeling of being welcome in a community, clean air and so on. I would say some quality of life factors can be measured, but most just have to be felt.”