Can California Legislate Its Way to Happiness?


Happiness is an area where California and the United States are “very, very far behind the rest of the world in looking at this issue — I think that’s a shame,” said Rendon, who added that the committee would put out a report on its findings by the end of the year. “But from a California perspective, I think it says a lot about us that we’re at least starting this discussion.”

In California, about 58 percent of adults say they are “pretty happy,” 16 percent are “very happy” and 26 percent “not too happy,” according to a September 2023 poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. Those numbers line up roughly with nationwide happiness levels, though that’s not necessarily inspiring given that the U.S. just received its lowest ever ranking in the United Nations’ annual World Happiness Report.

In the Golden State, happiness has been declining since the Public Policy Institute of California first began asking about it in 1998. The percentage of “pretty happy” Californians has stayed relatively stable, though the “not too happy” percentage has doubled and the “very happy” nearly halved. The people who tend to be least happy are adults ages 18 to 34, renters, those without a post-high school degree and those with an annual household income of $40,000 or less, according to Mark Baldassare, statewide survey director for PPIC.

I spoke to Rendon by phone last week while he watched his 4-year-old daughter, who he said is a major source of happiness in his life. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited:

So why focus on happiness?

We get so bogged down by questions about politics and questions about mathematics — trying to get to a majority plus one in terms of votes, and what will get a bill passed — that we lose track of the fundamental questions about what is right and wrong. Ultimately, I really feel like the only thing we should be concerned about in government in the largest sense is making sure people are living fulfilling and happy lives.

What are you hoping to come out of the committee?

I don’t want this to devolve into yet another New Age-y thing. The point is not to show up and put crystals on the dais and burn incense. The point is to look at data and have really interesting and important conversations about what makes people happy and what we can and can’t do. We know that connections are important. We can’t make people have a better family, or families that they love, but we can certainly do things to provide meeting places for seniors to help with isolation, for example.

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