Can Government Make You Happy?

Officials in one Boston suburb are the first to move beyond the traditional measure of success—economic growth—and track their citizens' happiness as a measure of wellbeing.

What's the Latest Development?


Citizens of Somerville, a suburb of Boston, rated their own level of happiness on the city's census forms this spring. On a scale of 1 to 10, they were asked, "How happy do you feel right now?" The addition of the happiness survey to the census was "a no-brainer," according to the city's mayor, Joseph A. Curtatone. "Cities keep careful track of their finances, but a bond rating doesn't tell us how people feel or why they want to raise a family here or relocate a business here,” Mr. Curtatone said. Harvard psychology professor Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, is donating his time to advise the government on its happiness survey. 

What's the Big Idea?

Can government policies make people happy? Or is that too soft a metric for what should be the serious business of executives and legislators? A novel approach to social policy is taking shape outside of Boston: Creating government programs to directly benefit the happiness levels of citizens, like new biking paths and recreational centers, rather than promoting wellbeing indirectly through economic policy. As most "indicators" of happiness are economic data, such as a family's yearly income, this new approach represents a fundamental shift in priorities relative to how we see our own wellbeing. 

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