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The Desire for Happiness: California Legislators Seek Answers
Science & Health

The Desire for Happiness: California Legislators Seek Answers

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

During an interview outside the state Assembly chambers, where he has been a lawmaker for twelve years, he expressed, “Those are the things that bring me joy.”

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.

FILE - Assemblyman Anthony Rendon walks with his daughter Vienna before being sworn in as Speaker of the Assembly at the California Legislature in Sacramento, Calif., Dec. 5, 2022.

Assemblyman Anthony Rendon strolls with his daughter Vienna prior to taking the oath as Speaker of the Assembly in the California Legislature on December 5, 2022 in Sacramento, California.

According to Rendon, it would be foolish for legislators to neglect studying ways to increase happiness among individuals.

The speaker stated that our goal should not just be to provide basic needs like clothing, housing, and employment, but also to ensure that individuals are content with their lives. They suggested that policymakers prioritize happiness when making decisions.

A survey conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California in September 2023 found that in California, 75% of adults report being either “very happy” or “pretty happy,” with 26% reporting feeling “not too happy.” The data also shows that adults aged 18 to 34, renters, those without a post-high school degree, and Californians with an annual household income of $40,000 or lower tend to have lower levels of happiness compared to others.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, California is leading the way in the United States by being the only state with a designated committee for happiness, while at least 12 other state legislatures have committees focused on mental health and substance abuse.

The concept of incorporating happiness into public policy is not new: Bhutan, a landlocked nation in South Asia, sees happiness as a key objective of its public policy. This is measured using a tool called the Gross National Happiness Index, which is enshrined in the country’s constitution. Officials in Bhutan solicit feedback from citizens on their happiness levels and strive to improve it by offering free healthcare and education, preserving cultural customs, and safeguarding forests. Phuntsho Norbu, consul general of the Kingdom of Bhutan to the United States, explained this approach.

Norbu suggested that the government cannot ensure everyone’s happiness, but it is responsible for establishing the necessary circumstances for individuals to seek and attain happiness.

California legislators serving on the newly formed committee were presented with insights from specialists regarding factors that contribute to happiness, actions that government officials can take to support citizens’ well-being, and the potential involvement of state and local authorities. While the committee has not yet decided on specific solutions, it intends to publish a report outlining its conclusions after the conclusion of the legislative session in August. According to Katie Talbot, spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, the report will be released once the lawmakers adjourn at the end of the month.

FILE - Cherry blossom, and other flowering trees add to the ambiance at the Crystal Hermitage Gardens at Ananda Village, in Nevada City, Calif., on April 8, 2022.

FILE – Cherry blossom, and other flowering trees add to the ambiance at the Crystal Hermitage Gardens at Ananda Village, in Nevada City, Calif., on April 8, 2022.

Pilar Schiavo, a Democratic Assembly member for a portion of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County, aims for the committee’s efforts to tackle the problem of inadequate mental health services for young people in California, a concern brought to her attention by her 11-year-old daughter in her school.

“This is a genuine crisis that we are currently facing,” stated Schiavo. “It addresses the core issues of the crisis at hand.”

According to Meliksah Demir, a happiness expert at California State University, Sacramento, various factors such as leisure activities, social connections, and life circumstances all play a role in determining an individual’s happiness. To promote overall well-being and happiness, government officials can support initiatives such as mental health resources, increasing access to nature, and incorporating teachings about the importance of happiness in school curriculums.

According to him, happiness has various advantages such as increasing the likelihood of voting, enhancing creativity, and promoting health.

In the September survey conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, it was revealed that 33% of adults are extremely content with their job, 31% are extremely satisfied with their leisure activities, and 44% are extremely satisfied with their housing.

According to Mark Baldassare, the survey director, Californians’ overall level of happiness has decreased amidst the pandemic. Despite this finding, researchers are continuing to investigate the reasons behind the decline.

FILE - Visitors to the pier watch surfers ride the waves in Huntington Beach, Calif., on Sept. 19, 2023.

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Rendon stated that California, a state known for being progressive in areas like climate policy and civil rights, is lagging behind much of the world when it comes to prioritizing happiness in policy decisions. He was motivated to establish the happiness committee after reading a yearly report on happiness published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

According to the report, the perception of government effectiveness, such as financial success, service delivery, and avoidance of civil unrest, can impact people’s happiness. The United States ranked 15th in a global happiness ranking from 2020 to 2022, with Scandinavian countries like Finland and Iceland taking the top spots.

Rendon’s choice to establish the happiness committee is in line with his approach to shaping state policy, which prioritizes larger societal issues, noted labor lobbyist Kristina Bas Hamilton. While individuals may have varying views on the level of government involvement in their lives, the formation of this committee reflects the core purpose of government, according to Hamilton.

Bas Hamilton stated that the purpose of the government is to support its citizens and promote their happiness, which is the objective of all public policies.