Direct democracy makes communities happier.

That’s the happy conclusion of research by Bruno S. Frey, of the Center for Research in Economics and Well-Being at the University of Basel, in Switzerland.

Frey has been studying happiness for years. At the recent Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy in Rome, an event for which I served as co-president, Frey showed significant gains—7 percent or up—in places with direct democracy vs those without.

Much of the research was conducted in Switzerland, comparing cantons with strong direct democracy and those with little. By comparing within the same country, he was able to isolate political effects from economic ones.

What’s going on here? It’s hard to tell, but Frey noted that jurisdictions with initiative and referendum have less debt and are stronger economically. In previous work, Frey has found that this goes beyond direct democracy; places with more developed democratic institutions and local autonomy have populations that report more satisfaction with their lives.

Does that reflect a larger sense of citizen agency in such places? Or does direct democracy put more pressure on elected officials, as Frey himself suggested in Rome?

In our country, polarized by national politics, it suggests that one answer could be focusing more on local democracy, local direct democracy, and local participation – and less on Washington.