Somerville, Mass., is famous for being the hometown of Marshmallow Fluff. It would like to be famous for something else, too: exceptionally happy residents. It was inspired, exotically enough, by Bhutan, which decided to put happiness ahead of its gross domestic product in terms of important measures, and has used surveys since 2005 to compile a gross national happiness index. So the Boston suburb of 80,000 took a page from Bhutan's handbook and included a life-satisfaction survey in the 2010 census form. Question No. 2: "How satisfied are you with your life in general?"
Phone interviews with specific households come next, and all the info will come together to create a happiness baseline and to inform public policy. São Paulo, Brazil, for instance, followed Bhutan's lead and is working to construct public parks based on its findings. "I don't rely just on the financial numbers," says Somerville's mayor. "[That] doesn't tell you why your family decides to stay here." But not everyone agrees with the move. "I think that municipalities can draw from a lot of literature that has already been done rather than running their own surveys," says Economist blogger Will Wilkinson, who thinks we already know what makes people happy: living in a wealthy, democratic, welfare state, for one, notes the Christian Science Monitor. Things that make us unhappy? Divorce, lengthy commutes, and unemployment, he says.