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Somerville, Mass., aims to boost happiness. Can it?

Forget GDP, say a growing number of cities and nations. Instead, they're measuring happiness and hope to increase it.

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Somerville was inspired by, of all places, Bhutan. In 1972, the king of that landlocked Asian nation famously said: "Gross national happiness is more important than gross domestic product." It took Bhutan until 2005 to send out a pilot survey. But it has since followed up with two broader surveys and published a gross national happiness index with numerical results in categories such as health, education, and psychological well-being.

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The idea has spread. In 2008, French President Nicholas Sarkozy assembled a team of economists to examine the limitations of measuring progress with the traditional economic measure of gross domestic product. The study concluded that GDP couldn't fully capture environmental and psychological well-being.

For British Prime Minister David Cameron, it's not GDP but GWB that's important – general well-being. This month, the Office of National Statistics will start measuring the nation's well-being by asking 200,000 citizens to answer questions about happiness and life satisfaction.

Some communities have also attempted to measure happiness. In Brazil, two impoverished cities near São Paulo adapted Bhutan's survey and found that citizens wanted public parks, which are now in the works. Victoria, British Columbia, is currently conducting its second happiness and well-being survey after a pilot in 2008. In the United States, Seattle has its first-ever well-being survey out right now.

"Happiness, or life satisfaction, is probably the single best survey question that you could ask that captures the most information about what people would want to choose for themselves," says Dan Benjamin, an economics professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Supplementing GDP with a happiness index would give a fuller picture.

Not everyone agrees.

"I think that municipalities can draw from a lot of literature that has already been done rather than running their own surveys," says Will Wilkinson, a former research fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., and a blogger for The Economist. His research suggests that what makes people happy is already known.

For example: People are most likely to be happy if they live in a wealthy, democratic, welfare state, he says. Also, divorce, a long commute, or unemployment tend to make people miserable.

In the end, I let my new roommates fill out the Somerville survey. Even though I didn't know how to answer all the questions, I liked getting it in the mail. It was thoughtful and a nice welcome to town.

So, Somerville, I'd say I'm at about a 7 these days. Maybe even an 8 in the 50-degree weather we've been having lately. Thanks for asking.


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