Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun
“It made him happy.”
University of B.C. economist John Helliwell is speaking about how his father felt after deciding in 1964 to donate 3,000 hectares of stunning waterfront land on Hornby Island to the world.
The bluffs of Helliwell Park make up one of the brightest emeralds in B.C.’s Gulf Islands. And the land came into the hands of millions because John’s father, an accountant, “felt it was too beautiful to not share.”
Such community connections are the grist of the international social science of happiness, and John Helliwell has become one of its leading specialists.
The deliriously active 75-year-old was instrumental in inspiring the United Nations this June to declare the arrival of the “International Day of Happiness.” It’s scheduled for March 20 each year.
Who is more happy? The people of Italy or Canada? Citizens of the U.S. or the Philippines? The residents of Halifax or Vancouver?
Embracing value of happiness
The UN’s Human Happiness Report, as well as other research by Helliwell, who is a former adviser to the Bank of Canada and a scholar with the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, offers a scientific answer.
It’s taken people like Helliwell a long time to overcome what he calls the “giggle factor” associated with global happiness research.
How could an emotion so vague and mushy be so crucial to human prosperity?
Because science backs it up, Helliwell says. Because happiness levels are verifiable through experiment and peer-reviewed research.
Because most economists and captains of finance — fixated on the Gross Domestic Product as the most important way to rank a country’s well-being — have been missing the bigger picture.
It’s not only the UN that is embracing happiness research, following the example of the tiny Himalayan country of Bhutan with its Gross National Happiness Index. Now, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French leaders and others want to develop their own happiness indexes.
Canada doesn’t do badly in the 2012 World Happiness Report, which Helliwell co-authored with Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs.
After compiling a complex variety of international surveys on happiness and social well-being, Helliwell et al concluded Canada’s citizens are, on average, fifth happiest in the world. The residents of Denmark came in first — out of more than 150 countries — followed by Finland, Norway and the Netherlands.
These northern European countries all had more of the essential ingredients that make Canadians happy: Decent average incomes, community trust, and a safety net.
How about other countries with strong immigrant links to Canada? The World Happiness Report ranks Americans 11th, the British 18th, Italians 28th, Germans 30th, Indians 94th, Filipinos 104th, and Chinese 114th.
Within Canada, Helliwell has also found strong differences in happiness levels.
Despite the image of the West Coast as a natural paradise, British Columbians are not as content as many other Canadians, particularly those in Atlantic Canada. Even though residents of the Atlantic provinces have lower incomes on average, they are significantly more satisfied with their community than residents of the more rugged, individualistic West Coast.
Helliwell — who has become an expert at the complex statistical ways of measuring our moods, memories and overall life evaluations — wrote in a 2010 paper that a sense of “rootedness” helps make Maritimers more content than high-mobility, high-immigrant British Columbia.
Atlantic Canadians trust each other more than their compatriots on the West Coast, especially young people stuck with stagnant wages in an expensive big city like Metro Vancouver, he says.
British Columbians’ do-your-own-thing ethos has its drawbacks. The provincial government’s marketing slogan of the past decade — that B.C. is “the best place on Earth” — was “junk,” Helliwell says.
“In Kitsilano, everybody is too busy living their own lives to reach out to other people. The sense of community that many have in the Atlantic provinces matters more than your café latte.”
Why the GDP is not enough
Speaking from his family’s residence on Hornby Island, Helliwell confirms he feels as happy as his pioneering father did about donating a park.
“We’re proud of what he did.”
Such expressions about the value of sharing and interconnectedness are not empty platitudes for Helliwell. Along with a growing cohort of interdisciplinary economists, Helliwell realizes that orthodox economists fail to understand that a great deal of human interaction takes place outside what is measured by the GDP — which quantifies the market value of all goods and services produced within a country during a given period.
Orthodox economists, by turning the GDP into a kind of Holy Grail, were seeing only a fraction of the happiness picture. In effect, Helliwell says, they over-emphasized human “self-centredness.” What about their altruism?
Helliwell’s own transformation as an economist started about 20 years ago. That’s when he began studying the work of psychologists, who he realized knew a lot more about what makes people satisfied than economists.
“It made me change my view of human nature. It made me reach out more than I would have done.”
Helliwell realized people care about more than just the accumulation of money and stuff. To be happy, we need to feel connection, trust and meaningful relationships.
It turns out the United States provides one of the best examples of why the GDP is over-rated.
In the most powerful economy on earth, the GDP has risen consistently for the past 50 years. But, as Helliwell stresses, reported levels of happiness in the U.S. have been steadily declining during those decades.
“Increasing inequality is part of the issue,” he says. When the incomes of the elite rise a lot, and “median incomes drop or stay flat, most people don’t feel as well off.”
Beyond GDP and its distribution among the population, the World Happiness Report points out that unhappiness comes from a social sense of insecurity.
“Poverty, ill health, and deep divisions in the community all contribute to low life satisfaction,” the report says.
And a sense that corruption is pervasive, that political and financial leaders are rogues, is devastating to a region’s overall contentment level.
What brings happiness?
“A household’s income counts for life satisfaction, but only in a limited way. Other things matter more: community trust, mental and physical health, and the quality of governance and rule of law,” says the UN report. “Raising incomes can raise happiness, especially in poor countries, but fostering co-operation and community can do even more, especially in rich societies.”
Indeed, as declining U.S. happiness levels suggest, affluence can create its own unhappiness.
Obesity epidemics. Drug addiction. Diabetes. Divorce. Depression. Anxiety. The World Happiness Report found them in abundance in wealthier countries.
“Happiness is not just keeping people fed and in front of TV sets,” Helliwell says.
In cultures focused on consuming things and services, an ever-increasing standard for happiness can create a sense of envy that is never fulfilled.
In wealthy societies, people can become addicted to short-term pleasure. They always want more. They don’t understand long-term contentment, which requires a sense of self-limitation, of feeling one has enough.
For instance, Helliwell has learned from psychologist colleagues that over-eating in affluent societies is hardly a celebration of good fortune. More often, it signals depression.
“Over-eating is one way to act out one’s unhappiness. And, when it creates obesity, it just adds to unhappiness.”
Friends and relationships
When it comes to the happiness that flows from relationships, Helliwell finds friends on his beloved Hornby Island and among his fellow scullers at Vancouver’s Spanish Banks.
“The social aspect is very important. It creates a sense of family.”
There is also his community of scholars, thinkers and activists — and his family, including his good-natured wife, Millie, plus two sons, two daughters and five grandchildren. Alas, his well-known brother, David, who won a silver medal in rowing in the 1956 Summer Olympics, died almost two decades ago.
Even though it took Helliwell a while in his economics career to study well-being, it’s fair to suggest his interest in happiness grew out of his Rhodes Scholar studies at Oxford University, where he dived into the writings of the Greek philosopher Aristotle.
“I consider myself Aristotle’s research assistant.”
He has conducted laboratory experiments testing Aristotle’s idea about the source of happiness, which the philosopher argued could derive from living a virtuous life, following the Golden Mean.
“Aristotle was saying happiness isn’t all about doing the right thing. Nor about eating good food. It’s a combination.”
Happiness is, in part, a skill — one that people can develop, Helliwell says.
“And having a purpose in life is a part of Aristotle’s story. One can find happiness in doing something for others.”
Helliwell’s growing realization that happiness has to do with connection and altruism has led him to do many “silly things.” Like giving speeches around the world in which he leads audiences in kids’ songs such as “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.”
He says he gets people clapping “to show the science: A shared experience increases happiness. And a lot of people say you can feel the tenor of the room change.”
Religion is also good for creating a sense of connection, he says.
Despite being a largely inactive Anglican, Helliwell says studies show religious people tend to be happier — and much of that has to do with their enhanced sense of community.
In addition, Helliwell joins the Dalai Lama, with whom he is friends, in emphasizing that religious institutions are excellent at teaching people to think about others.
“Everybody needs reminders,” he said. One study suggests people are less likely to cheat and more likely to be generous when indirectly reminded of the Ten Commandments.
Some version of the “Golden Rule” — treat others the way you’d like to be treated — runs through every major religion. Such reaching out, he says, leads to the so-called “caregiver effect.”
It makes people happy.
Marriage can bring joy
Even though Helliwell, as an academic, is adept at making abstract and statistical claims about the origins of happiness, he doesn’t want to lose touch with the state of being itself.
That’s why, along with friends and family, he is not shy about singing the praises of his wife, Millie.
“Marriage is a very important source of happiness.” Even though some separations seem necessary, he says most studies show a high correlation between divorce and unhappiness.
“Some people heal from divorce, but it is still a failed relationship. Most of the happiness effect related to marriage has to do with having someone to share your life with.”
It’s why he doesn’t hesitate to call Millie a “beacon of light wherever she goes” — someone who takes a genuine interest in everyone she meets, lighting up their day.
In other words, as Helliwell likes to say, “I study happiness. And she lives it.”