California politicians are exploring ways to make you happy

A person walks along a shore.
A woman walks on a trail adjacent to the Monterey harbor.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

Good morning. It’s Wednesday, March 20. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

California politicians are thinking up ways to make you happy

Are you happy?

If so, why? If not, what would make you happier?

And this is a somewhat of an unusual question: Can the government play a role in your happiness?

These are some of the big questions a new committee of state lawmakers want to explore.

Last week, the state Assembly’s recently formed Select Committee on Happiness and Public Policy Outcomes held its first informational hearing, seeking to understand what makes people happy — and how government action could make Californians happier. There were more questions than answers.


How can politicians actually measure happiness?

“It’s an eternal question,” Rep. Anthony Rendon said. “And one [that’s] overdue in terms of us thinking about it in a formal way.”

The Lakewood Democrat and former long-serving Assembly speaker is chairing the new committee during his last year in office.

At this point, some of you may be rolling your eyes at the thought of a “California Happiness Committee.”

Rendon gets this. But what bothers him most is those who misunderstand the purpose of the committee and seek to inject their own, shall we say, alternative ideas. Think group yoga and feeling circles.

“This is not New Age bulls—,” Rendon told me this week. “We have two decades of very serious quantitative and qualitative data … indicators that are real and meaningful.”

Understanding the happiness deficit


It turns out, happiness is on the decline in the Golden State, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. In a September survey, 58% of adult Californians reported being “pretty happy,” 16% said they were “very happy,” and 26% said they were “not too happy.”

The core of California adults who say they’re “pretty happy” has been stable, Mark Baldassare, statewide survey director and the Miller chair in public policy at the institute, told the committee last week. But fewer adults in the state reported being “very happy” compared with previous surveys, and more said they were “not too happy,” according to Baldassare.

Rendon also noted research from Oxford University and the United Nations, presented in the annual World Happiness Report, which ranks countries based on the level of happiness reported by their people.

The rankings developed for the report are based on survey data from the Gallup World Poll, which includes a section asking individuals to evaluate their lives and emotions. Those responses are then weighted based on country demographics, then averaged over three years of responses to create an annual ranking.

Researchers also highlight six variables they say influence happiness around the world:

  • Gross domestic product per capita.
  • Social support.
  • Healthy life expectancy.
  • Freedom.
  • Generosity.
  • Corruption.

The report’s authors argue that the “effectiveness of the government has a major influence on human happiness of the people.”

The 2024 World Happiness Report was released Wednesday. According to its calculations, the 10 happiest countries are:

    1. Finland.
    2. Denmark.
    3. Iceland.
    4. Sweden.
    5. Israel.
    6. Netherlands.
    7. Norway.
    8. Luxembourg.
    9. Switzerland.
    10. Australia.

    Happiness in the U.S. dropped in all age groups, researchers said. The U.S. ranked 23rd, down from 15th in last year’s report.


    Happiness was especially low among younger U.S. residents. The report parsed out data showing just the happiness reported by younger respondents (those under 30), which put the U.S. down in 62nd place. Compare that with happiness reported by older respondents (those 60 and older), which put the U.S. in 10th.

    Happiness, loneliness and the kingdom of Bhutan

    The happiness committee hearing lasted more than 2½ hours and included testimony from a documentary filmmaker, a minister, the mayor of Fremont, Calif. (dubbed “the happiest city in America” by WalletHub) and a representative from the kingdom of Bhutan.

    The small South Asian country inspired much of the recent research into happiness because of its long focus on it as a key metric of government performance. The country’s leaders enact policies to “create the right conditions that will allow people to pursue happiness,” said Phuntsho Norbu, consul general of the kingdom to the United States.

    Panelists agreed strong social connections — among family, friends and local communities — are vital to a happier society. That’s not exactly an epiphany, but it comes at a time when many people in the U.S. are feeling more alone than ever.

    Last year, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released an advisory on the national epidemic of loneliness and isolation, which he said “represent profound threats to our health and well-being.”


    “Social connection can be a proactive approach to living a fulfilled and happy life,” the advisory reads, adding that strong social ties can also enhance education outcomes and work performance, and help make communities “healthier, safer and more prosperous.”

    One committee member, Assemblymember Pilar Schiavo, a Democrat representing the Santa Clarita Valley, took note of the “ripple effects of happiness” that panelists connected to the ongoing mental health crisis, especially among younger Californians.

    “You don’t have kids walking into schools with guns to shoot people if they’re happy,” Schiavo said.

    So what could government actually do to foster happiness?

    Building a stronger social safety net could be key, Rendon said, noting that some of the countries with the highest happiness rankings also ensure services including universal healthcare and livable wages. It would also require a shift in what lawmakers prioritize.

    “[We] need to realize that if everybody was fully housed and fully employed … that wouldn’t necessarily mean everyone was happy,” he said. “If social connections are the most important thing, then we have to think about how our society looks, how our workplace looks, our schools, how our communities look.”


    Now we want to hear from the tens of thousands of Californians who subscribe to this newsletter for an unscientific but hopefully insightful reader survey.

    This brings us back to that initial question: Are you happy?

    What brings you happiness — or what would help you become happier?

    And what role do you believe state and local governments could or should play in our happiness levels?

    Take this survey to share your California happiness with us. You could see your and fellow readers’ responses in a coming edition of Essential California.

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