Can we measure how happy we are?

It's easy to measure the effects of financial transactions and economic growth, but some say we should also try to measure happiness.

It's easy to measure the effects of financial transactions and economic growth, but some say we should also try to measure happiness.

April 23, 2012

Most Canadians are richer than their parents, far richer than their grandparents, infinitely richer than their great-grandparents. But are we happier for this?

For plenty of indebted, stressed and uncertain Canadians, their country's rising Gross Domestic Product has not translated into a more meaningful, more satisfying life, either individually or on the level of community. How many can claim to live in a more harmonious, more confident community than the generation that endured the Great Depression and two world wars?

What we measure matters. If our politics and our headlines are driven by the weekly, monthly and annual pulse of the GDP, we end up living narrow, nervous lives on a shrinking and poisoned planet, says Dennis Patrick O'Hara, a University of St. Michael's College theology professor.

"Catholic social teaching talks about the very things that the GDP doesn't measure," points out O'Hara.

"It talks about taking care of the poor, the marginalized, the people without a voice. It talks about proper income distribution. It talks more recently about care for the planet. It talks about the rights of workers. It will say things about the quality of one's existence."

While economists and government policymakers have that hard nugget of GDP data to rely on, there's no such thing as a Catholic social teaching index to indicate whether we're getting any closer to a just society.

"We need a different indicator that looks at how all of us are flourishing in a mutually enhancing way so that we have a sustainable future. This is the core of our faith," said O'Hara, director of the Toronto-based Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology.

As the world gets ready to meet in Brazil for the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in June, it seems the United Nations, civil society and governments as diverse as Brazil, Britain and Bhutan are prepared to advocate for just such a different indicator - some form of Gross National Happiness index.

University of British Columbia economist John Helliwell, along with colleagues Jeffrey Sach of Columbia University and Richard Layard of the London School of Economics, have just published the first-ever World Happiness Report, an attempt to measure aspects of our social and economic life that go beyond the dollar value of all goods and services bought and sold.

"When you use the happiness lens you think differently about which parts of economic progress are to be cherished and which parts are unnecessary," Helliwell said.


It turns out Canada's not doing badly in combined measures of national happiness. Canada ranks fifth behind four northern European nations (Denmark, Finland, Norway, Netherlands) in World Happiness Report rankings. The bottom five are all in sub-Saharan Africa (Burundi, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, Benin, Togo).

The point of the exercise is not some sort of happiness competition; it's about a more complete understanding of how our economy and society work.

Wealth generation is certainly part of the happiness equation.

"There's no way any country can reach anything like northern European levels of happiness at sub-Saharan income levels. It would be foolish," said Helliwell.

But Helliwell and his colleagues found there's more to happiness than money. Community participation, spirituality and religion, family stability, honest and reliable government, public safety, health and the state of the environment all play a role.

"Countries in which income matters more to people are on average less happy countries," Helliwell's concludes.

Recent research by American sociologist Robert Putnam in an essay called "Praying Alone is No Fun" has found that being at home in church, having friends on Sunday morning, has an enormous effect on happiness.


"Church friends are supercharged friends," says Helliwell. "Friends in general with whom you share an identity – a set of beliefs and core values – turn out to be more important to you and more supportive of you than ordinary friends."

The World Happiness Report debuted at a UN conference chaired by Bhutan. Bhutan pioneered its Gross National Happiness index in the 1970s and has been pushing for its adoption by other countries ever since.

Bhutan's UN conference came a week after a UNESCO preparatory meeting for Rio+20 in London called Pressure on the Planet. The UNESCO final communique criticized reliance on the GDP.

Rio+20 – 20 years after the conference that first put climate change on the world agenda – is being primed to push nations into measuring happiness and using the measures to shape national and international economic and environmental policy.


When it comes to the progress of poor nations, it's happiness rather than GDP that defines development, said Shelly Burgoyne, youth coordinator for the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.

Development and Peace's approach to development isn't about getting its partners to increase their GDP. It's about building stable, livable communities where people control their destiny.

In Canada, we're pushing up our GDP numbers at the expense of the planet and to the detriment of the small farmers and entrepreneurs that Development and Peace supports in poor countries, said Burgoyne.