Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Opinion: Vancouver, we’re happier than you think Vancouver Courier April 29, 2015

Last week it was difficult to avoid hearing or reading about happiness. At the beginning of the week, Statistics Canada revealed that based on 340,000 survey responses collected over a four year period, the Vancouver metropolitan area ranked last out of 33 cities in Canada.
Saguenay, Que. topped the list.

Measuring happiness is not a new thing. While Canada once was one of the few countries that did it, today many countries measure national happiness. There is even an International Day of Happiness held March 20. One of the world experts in the field is Vancouver’s own John Helliwell. John and I attend a weekly discussion group and I can attest to the fact that he seems genuinely happy all the time.

Last Tuesday, John participated in a panel discussion at the Museum of Vancouver organized by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR). The program was titled “Change Makers: from
Evidence to Action: Inspiring Ideas for Happier Communities.” John was joined by the Statistics Canada official who oversaw the Canadian survey and Meik Wiking, the CEO of the Danish Happiness Research Institute. Yes, there is a Danish Happiness Research Institute.

Wiking noted that while Vancouver may rank last amongst Canadian cities, by international standards we are quite a happy region. In an effort to increase happiness in Denmark, the state has eliminated community centre fees, created inter-generational community gardens, and studied the relationship between sustainable living and levels of happiness.

Meik addressed the commonly held belief that happiness is tied to economic growth, possessions and consumption. While happiness is definitely linked to wealth, researchers around the world have concluded that above a certain financial threshold, additional wealth fails to improve individual and collective well-being. However, people with good health and employment, strong social networks and a sense of purpose in life are on average much happier.

Since Vancouver is striving to become the most sustainable city in the world, I was interested in a Danish research report distributed at the conference examining a correlation between sustainability and happiness. It concludes that people who say it is important to care for nature and the environment are happier than those who do not. Furthermore, those who reduce waste and recycle are happier.
Examples included people who get joy from seeing other people finding value in things they would normally have gotten rid of. Those of us who have recently given away old clothes or furniture can probably attest to this.

Last Thursday, the results of another survey were announced. This one examined the level of happiness in 158 countries and concluded that Canada is the fifth happiest country on the planet. Only Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark and Norway ranked higher.

The 2015 World Happiness Report from the Sustainable Development Solutions Network undertook analysis in the fields of economics, psychology, health, national statistics and public policy.
Armed with the information that Vancouver was not a happy city but Canada was a happy country, I decided to visit The Happy Show at the Vancouver Museum. Earlier in the week, Courier writer Cheryl Rossi wrote an excellent preview of this show. While some Vancouverites may be disturbed by a few of the displays, I highly recommend it. Check out the washrooms. You cannot help but leave feeling a bit happier.
After attending the conference and Happy Show and pondering the national and international happiness surveys, I thought about some recent Courier columns in which I explored how good neighbourhood planning and housing design can improve happiness.

“Pocket neighbourhoods” that cluster small houses around communal space are just one example of friendlier planning. So is the inclusion of corner stores and cafes within residential neighbourhoods.

More block parties and perhaps an annual Neighbourhood Day, like that celebrated in the Netherlands, might also reduce the increasing social isolation many of us are experiencing.
While none of us like to be told we are in last place, I hope Vancouver will score higher when Statistics Canada next reports on our level of happiness. After all, look on the bright side. We can’t do worse.
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