Canada leads in happiness research
NationalPost.com – FinancialPost.com/News
Saturday, Nov. 27, 2010. Kenyon Wallace, National Post
A growing number of academics are calling on governments to take subjective measures of citizens’ well-being into account when setting policy, rather than relying solely on economic indicators. Chris Barrington-Leigh, a leading well-being researcher at the Univeristy of British Columbia, spoke this week with the National Post’s Kenyon Wallace about measuring happiness.
Q Where did research into well-being first develop?
A In economics it became prominent in the mid-1970s because Dick Easterlin, a researcher at the University of Southern California, examined various survey results across different countries and noticed a weird pattern: that people within a country are much happier if they are wealthy within that country, but not when compared to other countries, and over time, there are countries that have grown massively by economic measures, but they’re not getting happier. With the growth in different measurements and the better availability of data, [happiness research] blossomed again in the last decade or so.
Q Why study happiness or wellbeing?
A The obvious answer is that we want a happy society. If we have access to a measure of how good life is, then for goodness’ sake, let’s learn everything we can and pursue policies that are going to maximize that. All the other stuff like economic activity and growth are awfully useful, but surely not unto themselves. If there’s anything we’ve learned in the last five years or so, there isn’t one perfect measure of subjective well-being. Q What is the status of research into happiness in Canada?
A Canada is actually one of the leaders. Statistics Canada runs a whole bunch of surveys, including a general social survey that happens every single year, in which about 25,000 households are interviewed, and a health survey. We must have over half a million Canadians who have been asked life-satisfaction questions by Statistics Canada.
Q What are some surprising findings about what makes people happy that you have made during your own research?
A It has been suggested that economic growth solves many problems, but what we’ve found is that if you just make everyone wealthier, especially among the wealthy countries and wealthy people, people are going to have higher standards of living but not necessarily feel better about life. Everyone’s deriving their happiness in part relative to material standards set by others. Measuring progress solely by growth in GDP is an outmoded idea because we have better ways to measure our social objectives. Q What are the things that actually make Canadians happy?
A Social factors, such as our interactions with our families, friends and institutions, and how much our identities are connected to those around us, explain a good fraction. We know that people in Maritime provinces are happier than people in bigger provinces with bigger cities. Policy-wise, it doesn’t mean we should all move to small towns or to the Maritimes, it means there are all sorts of policy interventions we can think about.
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