Large Banner Ad
Small Banner Ad

May 26, 2015

In Canada and around the world: Who’s happy?

Reuel S. Amdur

More by this author...

"I spent a month in Edmonton one weekend." That was one person's reaction to a life satisfaction study of Canadian cities and regions reported in April.

The study, conducted by Statistics Canada with John Helliwell, a University of British Columbia economist whose work on evaluation of social well-being is widely acknowledged. 

In this particular study, people were asked, “Using a scale of 0 to ten, where 0 means ‘very dissatisfied’ and 10 means ‘very satisfied’, how do you feel about your life as a whole right now?”   

Edmonton, it seems, was found to have among the five least satisfied respondents.  But one wonders how our hostile critic would react to the other four that came out with even lower scores: Guelph, Windsor, Toronto, and Vancouver, with Vancouver at the bottom.  (Actually, the figures are for areas larger than the cities.  The report is for Census Metropolitan Areas, or CMA’s.) 

If spending time in Edmonton was dreary, what about Toronto and Vancouver?  The most satisfied respondents were found in the CMA’s for Sudbury, Thunder Bay, St. John’s, Saint John, and Saguenay.  Right off the bat, the larger places fare less well.  Montreal is only a bit ahead of Edmonton. 

Various factors were found to correlate with satisfaction. 

Women were slightly more satisfied than men and native-born Canadians than immigrants. 

People in their 40’s and early 50’s were less satisfied than those older or younger. 

Married people were happier than those never married, divorced, or widowed. 

Health and employment status also have an impact, as would be expected.  Being included socially in the community is positively associated with satisfaction.

Helliwell’s name pops up once again as an editor of and contributor to the 2015 World Happiness Report.  The report was produced by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network for the United Nations, while its views are not attributable to the UN. 

In the introductory chapter, Helliwell and the other two editors, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs, explain why the report speaks of happiness.  In reality, instead of happiness it would be more accurate to speak of subjective well-being.  However, a work entitled World Selective Well-Being Report would have less sex appeal. 

Six variables were chosen to identify selective well-being: per capita Gross Domestic Production (GDP), social support, years of healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and freedom from corruption. 

While Bhutan’s announced policy of increasing Gross National Happiness was perhaps one of the triggers for the current happiness industry (to use the word in a non-pejorative sense), Bhutan itself does not rank very well on the scale.  It ranks 79th out of 106 countries.  Perhaps that low rating has something to do with its repression of its Nepali minority and of discrimination against those not sharing Buddhism in its form accepted by the government. 

Of the ten countries ranking at the bottom, eight are in sub-Sharan Africa and the other two are Syria and Afghanistan.  These results are hardly surprising. 

The report also looks at change from 2005-2007 to 2012-2014.  Five Latin American countries are among the winners.  Sub-Saharan African countries were both among the main winners and losers, reflecting “the variety and volatility of experiences among the 25 sub-Saharan countries.”  Also among the losers were Greece, Italy, and Spain.  Their economies are undoubtedly a major part of the reason. 

The current political discourse in Canada is about doing for the middle class.  Contributors Richard Layard and Gus O’Donnell ask, “But should we not give more weight to changes (up or down) in the happiness of people who are currently miserable than of people who are already quite happy?” 

As a corollary, we could ask the same question without reference to changes, simply to the condition of misery.  Are we being overwhelmed by this catering to the middle class?

In one chapter, by Layard and Ann Hagell, the issue of children’s mental health is addressed. 

“Around 10% of the world’s children today are suffering from diagnosable mental health problems.”  The gap in services to children with such problems in Canada is significant.  Yet, the popular mantra is, if not to keep taxes low, then instead to lower them further. 

They cite a study from New Zealand looking at what happened to children with behavioral problems from ages seven to nine.  Of those whose behavior was in the worst five per cent, 35% committed violent offences between ages 21 and 25, compared to three per cent for those who as children were in the top 50% for conduct.  Drug dependence was at 20% versus 5%.  Teenage parenthood 20% versus 4%.  Suicide attempts up to age 25, 18% versus 4%.  Welfare use at age 25, 33% versus 9%. 

The final chapter, “Investing in Social Capital,” is by the paradoxical Jeffrey Sachs.  In discussing the criterion of freedom from corruption, he singled out J.P. Morgan for particular notoriety: “J.P. Morgan has paid around $35 billion in fines to the US government during the period 2011-2014 for a large number of financial abuses, yet the senior management has stayed in place and has continued to receive enormous bonuses.” 

As an orientation to promote social support, he calls for “the adoption of universal social benefits and strong social safety nets (as in Scandinavia) rather than means testing.”  These two positions are well taken.  But is this the same Jeffrey Sachs who served as a key policy advisor to Boris Yeltsin?  He pushed for the rapid dismantling of government control of the economy, leading to the growth of a class of Russian robber-barons comparable to those in the United States in the late 19th Century.  And what was his reaction to that dismantling?  It should have been more extreme.    

Incidentally, in the report Canada ranked number five in the world.  Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, and Norway beat us out.

  • Think green before you print
  • Respond to the editor
Subscribe to the E-bulletin

On July 7, 2024 in Toronto, Canada, Dimitri Lascaris delivered a speech on the right to resist oppression.

Subscribe to our YouTube Channel