LifestyleWhat makes people happy? California lawmakers want to find out

What makes people happy? California lawmakers want to find out

California Rep. Anthony Rendon likes to spend his free time away from the Capitol in Sacramento with his 4-year-old daughter at their home in Los Angeles. Last weekend he took her ice skating and to an indoor playground, and then let her have a donut when she agreed to ride her scooter to the store.

“Those are the things that make me happy,” he said this week in an interview outside the Assembly building, where he has been a parliamentarian for a dozen years.

Now Rendon, a Democrat who has been one of the longest-serving Assembly speakers in state history, is dedicating his final year in office to making happiness more central to legislative work. He has created the country’s first group to look at the issue, called the Select Committee on Happiness and Public Policy Outcomes, which held its first public session this week.

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

“Because if we make everyone have clothes, everyone have a roof over their heads, everyone 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 when drafting laws.

In California, three-quarters of adults say they are “very” or “fairly” happy, while 26% describe themselves as “not very” happy, according to a September 2023 survey by the Public Policy Institute of California. Adults ages 18 to 34 who are renters, those without a college degree, and Californians whose households earn $40,000 or less a year tend to be less happy than others.

California is paving the way in the United States. At least 12 state legislatures in the country have committees focused on mental health and drug addiction issues, but no other state chamber has a committee dedicated to happiness, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But the idea of ​​considering happiness in public policy has precedent: Bhutan, a landlocked country in South Asia, prioritizes happiness as an objective in its public policies, measured through a criterion included in its Constitution and called the Gross National Happiness Index. The country surveys residents about their level of happiness, and authorities are working to increase it by offering free healthcare and education, protecting cultural traditions and preserving forests, said Phuntsho Norbu, consul general of the Kingdom of Bhutan in the United States.

The government cannot make everyone happy, Norbu said, but it must “create the right conditions that allow people to pursue happiness.”

Lawmakers on California’s new committee heard this week from several 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 has not presented solutions yet, but plans to present a report with its findings when the parliamentary term ends at the end of August, said Katie Talbot, Rendon’s spokeswoman.

Assemblywoman Pilar Schiavo, a Democrat who represents San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County, is confident that the committee’s work can address poor mental health among young Californians, which her 11-year-old daughter has told her is a big problem in his school class.

“What we have on our hands right now is a real crisis,” Schiavo said. “This gets to the heart of that crisis.”

Studies show that recreational 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 authorities can work to improve happiness by investing in mental health resources, making more green spaces accessible and teaching the true value of happiness in schools from the earliest grades, Demir said.

Happiness has broad benefits, such as making people more likely to vote, be creative and be healthier, he said.

The Public Policy Institute of California’s September survey showed that 33% of adults overall said they were satisfied with their jobs, 31% said they were very satisfied with their leisure activities, and 44% said they were very satisfied with his living place.

Californians’ happiness levels dipped during the pandemic, but experts are still investigating the decline, said Mark Baldassare, the group’s polling director.

California, which often leads other states on issues like climate policy and civil rights, lags behind many other places in the world in prioritizing happiness in its legislative work, Rendon said. He said part of the inspiration for creating the happiness committee came from a report on happiness published each year by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Last year’s report showed that people’s perception of government effectiveness — including how well it raises money, delivers services and prevents civil war — can influence their happiness. The United States was in 15th place in global happiness, according to a three-year average between 2020 and 2022, the report indicated. The best positioned were Nordic countries such as Finland and Iceland, which led the list.

Rendon’s decision to create the happiness committee is aligned with his strategy of making state policy focused on “big picture” social issues, said veteran labor lobbyist Kristina Bas Hamilton. People have different perspectives on the government’s involvement in their lives, she noted, but the committee’s creation evokes the government’s ultimate purpose.

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

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Austin is part of The Associated Press/Report for America’s Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a national nonprofit program that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover undercovered issues. Austin is on X, formerly Twitter, as @sophieadanna

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