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California lawmakers explore treating happiness as a public policy issue

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

How happy are you right now? If your answer is, could be doing better, then how would you feel about your state government trying to boost your mood through legislation? Well, that's what lawmakers in California are exploring through a new committee focused on happiness as a public policy issue. Nicole Nixon reports from member station CapRadio in Sacramento.

NICOLE NIXON, BYLINE: Its formal title is the Assembly Select Committee on Happiness and Public Policy Outcomes, and it had its first meeting in the California State House last week. Assembly Member Anthony Rendon created and chairs the new committee.

ANTHONY RENDON: We had 50,000 bills last year and only one of them used the word happiness. It's a true stat.

NIXON: That was a joke. So of course, let's ruin it with a fact check. It was more like 2,500 bills and eight had the word happiness. But his point, as he told member station KCRW, is that lawmakers often go about public policy backwards.

RENDON: We start with specific policies about housing, about jobs, rather than sort of asking the fundamental questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What do you want out of life?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I don't know. To be happy?

NIXON: The Los Angeles area Democrat says he became obsessed with the secrets to happiness over a decade ago after watching this documentary 14 times in two days. Ever since, he's wondered if there could be a legislative solution.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: There is a great deal you can do on a regular basis to become happier.

NIXON: Roko Belic is the director of that 2011 film "Happy." Belic visited 14 countries to make the film. And he says some of those places hold lessons for California and the U.S.

ROKO BELIC: There's these sort of systemic solutions to disconnection, disenfranchisement. They're bringing people together in ways that were very inspiring to me, through.

NIXON: Through things like more green space and fostering connections between youth and seniors. Assembly member Pilar Schiavo is acutely aware of the youth mental health crisis as a mother.

PILAR SCHIAVO: I, you know, was just talking to my daughter yesterday, and she was naming off of all of the children in her class who are suicidal or depressed, and I could not believe it.

NIXON: The Happiness Committee's inaugural hearing was light on specific solutions for California, but largely optimistic. The United Nations World Happiness Report ranks the U.S. as the 15th happiest country, determined by factors like GDP, life expectancy, and a government's ability to meet its citizens' basic needs. And it's that last one that this committee hopes to boost.

For NPR News, I'm Nicole Nixon in Sacramento. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nicole Nixon / CapRadio