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Illustration by David Woodside
Illustration by David Woodside

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If you're happy and you know it, vote for me Add to ...

Happiness may be sashaying onto the political dance floor, but no one is prepared to fully embrace her and take her for a whirl.

Not yet, anyway. And not in Canada.

Glowing and gussied up in a layered, papery gown of academic research, she - pardon the gender handle, but since ancient times, happiness has always been depicted as a rather voluptuous woman - is enjoying a big, sumptuous moment. General well-being, or GWB, as opposed to GDP as a measure of economic performance and social progress, is a fascinating new player on the global political scene.

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The idea has already caught on in Britain, where the government last week unveiled plans to launch a Happiness Index, and France made a similar move a year ago. But although happiness has blossomed into a popular area of inquiry, she's not quite ready for prime time.

The question of whether happiness and government can make a good pair - whether research into well-being can be translated into meaningful policy - was the subject of a conference in Ottawa this week, co-hosted by the Centre for the Study of Living Standards (CSLS), a non-profit independent, national organization, and the Ontario government's Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity (ICAP). The response to that question produced at best a lopsided grin: somewhat cynical, somewhat hopeful.

Progressive conservatives

In a shrewd move last month, British Prime Minister David Cameron commissioned the Office for National Statistics to focus on alternative measures of prosperity in a time of austerity and when Ireland is barely above economic sea level. The research project, worth £2-million ($3.1-million) a year for four years, will be a complementary measure to the gross domestic product, and might pave the way for other governments to follow. In Mr. Cameron's happiness initiative, researchers will look at factors such as the environment and psychological and physical elements, and measure both subjective and objective well-being.

He was following the lead of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who in 2009 commissioned a top economist to find new ways to measure economic progress taking into account social well-being. That the French, who have always understood the importance of good wine, a crusty baguette and not working too hard, would see the wisdom in paying attention to the notion that there is more to a civilized society than GDP, is not a huge leap. Some might even call it a form of self-congratulation.

But such easy cynicism does not take into account the serious science of happiness, which makes it hard to ignore as a source of valuable insight into what constitutes a vibrant, contented and productive society and a tantalizing potential source of policy ideas in uncertain times.

Money can't buy you . . .

The CSLS and the ICAP were co-sponsoring the happiness conference partly because they are the ones behind the headline-generating report last month that studied Canadians' happiness. While the country is generally happy, with 92.1 per cent of the respondents saying they were satisfied or very satisfied with their lives in 2009, one key finding was that household income does not govern contentedness.

Employment, marital and immigration status, better-perceived mental and physical health, less stress and a sense of belonging to a community were the most significant variables. The study also found that, based on a scale of 1 to 5, people in Sherbrooke were the happiest (4.37) while those in Toronto were the least content (4.15). The results provide an opportunity to study what is working in the happier communities that can be used elsewhere, researchers say.

"Life is very local," explained John Helliwell, a University of British Columbia economics professor who is a global expert on happiness.

"It's things like, 'Do you trust your neighbours or your company? Do you have confidence in the police? Do you have good relationships in the community? Lots of friends?' "

The importance of such "social capital," rather than simply money, is not a new insight. For close to 30 years, interdisciplinary academics - economists with a psychological bent and psychologists who apply their insights to economics - have been gathering a large, international body of evidence showing that beyond a certain point, rising national wealth stops making the population any happier.

It was in the 1970s that American economist Richard Easterlin identified what became known as the Easterlin Paradox - the fact that there is a "satiation point," a level of income beyond which more money would not produce more happiness. Since then, research floodgates have opened.

"Happiness is mostly about opportunity, good health, relationships and freedom to choose who you want to be," Eric Noel of Oxford Analytica said when discussing determinants of happiness at the international level.

From theory to practice?

Some research projects provide clues to how "social capital" can be increased in communities, but they still do not provide evidence of long-term economic outcomes.

Such was the case with an experimental intervention, Community Employment Innovation Project, in Cape Breton in 1999. It was designed to measure the effects of providing community-based employment to the long-term unemployed. Funded by Human Resources Development Canada, the project offered participants a wage for volunteering on community projects as an alternative to employment insurance or income assistance.

The project lasted three years, and although participants were no better off from an employment perspective - the jobs were often not sustainable - there was a significant positive effect on social capital a year after they had participated in the program, compared with a control group. They reported better networks, a greater sense of belonging to the community, better skills, and heightened expectations that they would find work in the future.

"Something's going on" despite the lack of employment gains, said David Gyarmati, the lead researcher on the project at Social Research and Demonstration Corporation, a non-profit organization that specializes in innovative social programs. "But we need more trials to really get into the black box here."

Few would argue that governments should not be interested in investing in preventive policies. What's missing, however, are longer-term studies and, perhaps most significantly, the "development of rigorous analytical frameworks" that would shed light on how and where government policy can intervene to bring about desired economic outcomes, said Mel Cappe, president of the Institute for Research on Public Policy and former Canadian High Commissioner in Britain.

Partly that's because the problem with happiness, despite all its decoding, is that it remains a fragile and elusive concept.

What is its durability? How long does improved education augment happiness? Why is it that some people with disabilities who don't live a "good life" as others might define it, decide not to change their condition when given the choice? (Many deaf people prefer to remain grounded in deaf culture, for example.) Does the term "good life" mean different things to different people? And then there's the tricky question of whether perfect stability, happiness and predictability are hindrances to progress as a society. Don't you have to be uncomfortable or dissatisfied in order to make positive change?

"We're a long way off from having a framework for guiding public policy," Mr. Cappe pronounced, echoing the conclusions of other former public servants.

The British happiness initiative can be seen as taking a stab at creating such a framework. It is experimental, however, and a long way from morphing into policy, Aileen Simkins, director of operations in the Office of National Statistics, acknowledged in an interview.

"When politicians say to you, 'I'm wonderful. Vote for me,' you know what that noise is like and you're used to it," Ms. Simkins said. "But when National Statistics says, 'These are numbers that tell us something important about society,' and I develop the numbers in a way which asked a lot of people what they thought was needed and went to a lot of different academics in other countries and said, 'What are you doing?' we want that to be a different noise."

Mr. Cameron's overture to happiness - a no-cost way of way of appearing socially progressive - is just a wink of acknowledgment across the ballroom. He is flirting with the possibility of a partnership, and while that is commendable and interesting, for now, and probably many years to come, happiness as a policy initiative will have to be content with life on the political margins.

Sarah Hampson is a columnist with Globe Life.

 

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