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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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The city that brought America Marshmallow Fluff is at it again. This time, Somerville, Mass., hopes to lead its residents – and, by extension, America – to greater happiness.

In February, the Boston suburb included a life-satisfaction survey in the annual census form it mailed to its 80,000 residents. Question No. 2: "How satisfied are you with your life in general?"

If this sounds a little fluffy, it's actually part of a growing effort by cities and nations – from Bhutan to Brazil – to measure their citizens' well-being. The data are too new to know if governments can measure happiness – or if they can, what they can do to improve it. Still, the fact that more and more governments are asking suggests widening concern that societies, while richer, may not be happier.

"Despite the fact that incomes have risen, and GDP [gross domestic product] has risen, happiness in the US is as flat as a pancake," says David Blanchflower, an economist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., who has studied the measurement of happiness. "It hasn't risen since the 1970s."


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