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A protester raises a flag as hundreds of students rally against tuition fees at in London's Trafalgar Square on Nov. 30, 2010. (Sang Tan/AP)
A protester raises a flag as hundreds of students rally against tuition fees at in London's Trafalgar Square on Nov. 30, 2010. (Sang Tan/AP)

Getting a handle on happiness Add to ...

As Canada's gross domestic product numbers start to fade, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty could easily - and legitimately - boast that Canadians are at least the happiest in the G7.

But Canada has shown little interest in such measures, even as other G7 nations jump on board a global movement to think seriously about being happy.

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Acknowledging that critics find the idea a bit "wooly" and "airy-fairy," British Prime Minister David Cameron last week announced his government's new focus on measuring happiness, saying it will show that Britain's future success is about more than economic growth.

In Ottawa this week, a group of experts - including a director of the UK Office for National Statistics - are debating whether Canada should think happy thoughts.

One idea under discussion arises from a recent analysis by the Centre for the Study of Living Standards, which is co-hosting this week's conference, concluding that a rise in income can have less impact on happiness than improved mental health and community attachment.

THE CASE FOR MEASURING HAPPINESS

Mel Cappe uses the example of garbage. The former Clerk of the Privy Council notes that a country that produces a lot of stuff - including garbage - could be praised for having a high GDP. Yet that measure fails to take into account the citizenry's unhappiness with all the garbage.

That's why Mr. Cappe, who now heads the Institute for Research on Public Policy and is a panelist at Wednesday's debate, supports the idea of complementing GDP numbers with a measure of happiness. The idea still needs a lot of work, he said, but the British government's endorsement adds momentum.

"The fact that Cameron said what he said is really a sea change," Mr. Cappe said.

THE SKEPTICISM

Former TD Bank chief economist Don Drummond, another member of the panel, plans to throw a bit of cold water on what he labels the "happiness movement."

He disputes the underlying assumption that governments are blindly pursuing hikes to GDP as the be all and end all of success.

Ultimately, he said, politics depends on happy voters, and politicians are always polling and looking for ways to make voters happy. He also points out that there are limits to what governments can spend on health care and other social programs before the lack of public funds creates its own unhappiness.

"I'm still a little quizzical," he said.

THE GLOBAL MOVEMENT

The mix of national approaches to measuring happiness hasn't stopped others from producing global rankings. The London-based New Economics Foundation publishes a Happy Planet Index. Canada ranks fifth for life satisfaction, trailing only Costa Rica, Denmark, Norway and Ireland.

The ranking placed Canada at the top of the G7 - slightly in front of the U.S. - and well ahead of the U.K., France, Germany, Italy and Japan. African nations reported very low levels of happiness and Tanzania was at the bottom.

The Kingdom of Bhutan in the Himalayan mountains was among the first to take such measurements seriously. A 2008 survey found 97 per cent of its citizens were happy. French President Nicolas Sarkozy adopted a happiness-based program last year after commissioning the advice of two Nobel economists, calling it a "great revolution."

Follow on Twitter: @curryb

 

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