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Are Americans happy?

The government wants to know.

By Rich_Maloof Feb 13, 2013 5:39PM

Now that it’s tax season, the government has a lot of questions for you: How much money do you make, and how do you spend it? How many dependents do you have? Have you purchased a car or a refrigerator with a good energy rating?

Soon the feds may be asking a more surprising question: Are you happy?

Photo: Andy Ryan/Getty ImagesThe US government is considering the establishment of a happiness index. As noted by NPR, Canada, France, Britain, and Bhutan in South Asia have already added measures of citizen happiness to official statistics.

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The reaction of an unhappy cynic may fall somewhere along the lines of, “Yeah, like you care.” But when government programs and state spending are traced to their core incentives, your happiness turns out to be a major motivator. New bridges and tunnels are built to ease commuting, which is widely cited as a source of anger and frustration; pensions ensure income after retirement, a common cause of anxiety; federal funding of the arts supports the richness of our culture, which contributes to the fullness of one’s life.

Psychologists have long been collecting data on happiness and have a diverse range of studies suggesting both causes and consequences. Sex makes people happy, one shocker of a study found a few months ago. Other recent research has traced contentment to everything from conservatism and entrepreneurship to genetic makeup. Another found, paradoxically, that too much happiness can make you unhappy.

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For the feds, though, happiness is uncharted territory. If a census taker were to ring your doorbell and ask if you were happy, what would you say?

There are objective criteria to describe your income or the number of people living in your home, but quantifying happiness is trickier business. UK data has been culled using a variety of data points based not only on wealth and health but on the quality of friends and social life and on how much time is spent in nature. The World Database of Happiness incorporates many measures to characterize different kinds, durations, and ratings of happiness (“Have you ever felt on top of the world?” How much do any feelings of sadness or depression interfere with your everyday functioning?”).

Would a US happiness index reflect how happy Americans are feeling at the moment they’re asked, or how they feel about life in general? You can have family and friends and love and contentment aplenty, but if you’ve just banged your head on something sharp, all bets are off. On the flip side, NPR mentions a study in which a good state of mind was reported by subjects who found a nickel shortly before being questioned.

Apparently happiness is fleeting. If you’re lucky, sadness is, too.

An earlier version of this article mistakenly referenced the island of Buton in Indonesia rather than the kingdom of Bhutan.

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