What makes people happy? California lawmakers want to find out

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Assemblyman Anthony Rendon likes to spend his spare time away from the Capitol in Sacramento with his 4-year-old daughter back home near Los Angeles. Last weekend, he took her ice skating and to an indoor playground, then let her get a donut after she agreed to ride her scooter on the way there.

“Those are the types of things that make me happy,” he said this week in an interview outside the state Assembly chambers, where he’s served as a lawmaker for a dozen years.

Now Rendon, a Democrat who was one of the longest-serving Assembly speakers in California history, is spending his last year in office trying to make happiness more central to policymaking. He created a first-in-the-nation group to study the issue, called the Select Committee on Happiness and Public Policy Outcomes, which held its first public hearing this week.

It would be “silly” for lawmakers to not study how they can make people happier, Rendon said.

“Because if we have everybody clothed, everybody housed, everybody has a job and they’re miserable, then we’ve failed at what we’re trying to do,” he said, adding that lawmakers should think about happiness as a priority in policymaking.

In California, three-quarters of adults say they are “very happy” or “pretty happy,” while 26% say they are “not too happy,” according to a September 2023 survey from the Public Policy Institute of California. Adults age 18 to 34, people who are renters, those without a post-high school degree, and Californians with an annual household income of $40,000 or lower tend to be less happy than others.

California is breaking new ground in the United States. At least 12 state legislatures in the nation have committees focused on mental health and substance abuse issues, but no other state legislature has a committee devoted to happiness, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But the idea to consider happiness in public policy isn’t unprecedented: The landlocked country of Bhutan in South Asia prioritizes happiness as a goal of public policy, measuring it through something written into its constitution called the Gross National Happiness Index. The country surveys residents on their level of happiness, and officials work to increase happiness by providing residents with free health care and education, protecting cultural traditions, and preserving forests, said Phuntsho Norbu, consul general of the Kingdom of Bhutan to the United States.

The government cannot make every person happy, but it should “create the right conditions that will allow people to pursue happiness,” Norbu said.

Lawmakers on California’s new committee heard this week from experts about the things that make people happy, what public officials can do to help and what role state and local government can play. The committee isn’t set on any solutions yet but plans to release a report with its findings after lawmakers adjourn for the year at the end of August, said Katie Talbot, Rendon’s spokesperson.

Assemblymember Pilar Schiavo, a Democrat representing part of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County, hopes the committee’s work can address poor mental health among youth in California, which her 11-year-old daughter has told her is a big issue in her class at school.

“It’s a true crisis that we have on our hands right now,” Schiavo said. “This is really getting to the heart of what that crisis is about.”

Research demonstrates that leisure activities, social relationships and life circumstances contribute to a person’s happiness, said Meliksah Demir, a professor of happiness at California State University, Sacramento. Public officials can work toward improving happiness by investing in mental health resources, making green spaces more accessible and teaching about the value of happiness early on in schools, Demir said.

Happiness has wide-ranging benefits that include making people more likely to vote, more creative and healthier, he said.

The Public Policy Institute of California’s September survey found that 33% of adults overall say they are very satisfied with their job, 31% say they are very satisfied with their leisure activities and 44% are very satisfied with their housing.

Californians’ level of happiness decreased during the pandemic, but experts are still researching the decline, said Mark Baldassare, the group’s survey director.

California, which is often ahead of other states on issues such as climate policy and civil rights, is behind many parts of the world in prioritizing happiness in policymaking, Rendon said. He was inspired to create the happiness committee in part by a report on happiness released annually by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Last year’s report said that how people view the effectiveness of government — including how well it raises money, delivers services and avoids civil war — can influence their happiness. The United States was 15th in a world happiness ranking based on a three-year average from 2020 to 2022, according to the report. Scandinavian countries, including Finland and Iceland, ranked the highest.

Rendon’s decision to create the happiness committee aligns with his approach to making state policy that focuses on “bigger picture” social issues, longtime labor lobbyist Kristina Bas Hamilton said. People have different perspectives on government involvement in their lives, but the creation of the committee evokes the ultimate purpose of government, she said.

“Government’s role is to provide for its people,” Bas Hamilton said. “The goal is to have happy citizens. That’s the goal of all public policy.”

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Austin is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Austin on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter: @sophieadanna

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