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When the bubbly bursts forth on Monday at midnight, the usual cry of "Happy New Year" will ring out across the land, but it could carry different meanings depending on where you're standing that night.

If it's Saint John, truer words will not be spoken. The Maritime city has just been ranked as Canada's happiest in a study by John Helliwell, an economics professor at the University of British Columbia.

In Toronto, "Happy New Year" might convey more wish than fact, if you're lucky enough to hear it. Canada's largest city, which draws 100,000 newcomers each year, not only trails Saint John (population: 122,000 and dropping), but it doesn't even crack the top 10. Quebec City, Charlottetown, Moncton, Kitchener, St. John's, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Halifax, Vancouver and Edmonton all rank higher than Toronto on the smiley scale, while only Ottawa, Hamilton, Montreal, Calgary and Victoria score lower.

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So how, with all its wealth and dynamism and general fabulousness, could Toronto be less happy than its smaller, poorer, plainer cousins?

"It's part of the penalty being paid for being a big, mobile city," Dr. Helliwell said yesterday from his home in slightly cheerier Vancouver. "Human contacts suffer, especially during a growing phase," he said, and it's the quality of human contacts, above all else, that determines happiness.

It certainly isn't money, as the professor's research shows. The four cities with the highest household incomes - Calgary, Toronto, Hamilton and Edmonton - all finished below the top 10 in happiness.

"People do systematically overestimate the amount of happiness they'll get from material things and underestimate the amount they'll get from human contact, and from being embedded in supportive communities," he said.

In smaller towns, incomes tend to be lower, but people know their neighbours better and are more likely to run into friends in the course of daily life, "so that gives people not just a bigger sense of trust, but a bigger sense of connection," Dr. Helliwell said, "and those kind of things turn out to matter enormously for people's happiness."

With 5.5 million people living in and around Toronto, the opportunities to connect seem abundant in number, but they can be thwarted by a variety of factors that erode people's sense of trust in each other: high residential turnover, a built environment heavy on condos, the isolating and alienating effects of commuting in heavy traffic, a steady influx of newcomers from different backgrounds.

"If you're new in a city where most people aren't new, people reach out to you," Dr. Helliwell said. "If you're new in a city where almost everybody is new, then unless there are favourable circumstances that permit people to get together and do things together and learn about each other, then they'll carry on living in their pods."

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Toronto's fast pace and rising cost of living only add to the challenge, even for those with high incomes, because "if your neighbours are richer, then you feel pressure that makes you less happy," he said.

Nick Georgoudis, a Greek immigrant who used to live in Montreal, confronted these issues when he moved to Saint John 35 years ago.

Now 68 and the owner of three thriving restaurants, Mr. Georgoudis said his adopted city's relaxed pace, small-town neighbourliness and lower cost of living all contribute to its finish atop Canada's happy charts.

"I used to live in Montreal, and you hardly know your next-door neighbour," he said yesterday, during a lull in dining traffic. "In a city like here, everybody talks, everybody's cheerful, and the stress and the pace are not as fast as in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver."

While there is plenty of money floating around in Saint John, "people don't show it," he said, and a house can still be had for well under $150,000. "I think high-scale living makes people stressful and everybody wants to compete with everybody."

At the same time, Mr. Georgoudis said, these should hardly be revelations to anyone in Toronto. "I don't think you can learn anything that you don't already know," he said.

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Likewise, Dr. Helliwell said it might just be a matter of reminding ourselves of what his research has determined really makes us happy - connecting with friends and family, and helping others.

"It means it's worth investing some time to reach out and welcome your new neighbours and cherish the old ones, and get involved," he said.

"It's the reverse of consumption; people are actually happier if they're helping other people. That's often forgotten, and it's well-remembered at this time of year."

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