We can be a smug lot here in B.C., especially in Victoria.
But we’re the least happy people in the country, according to the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, which looked at peoples’ satisfaction with their quality of life in 18 Canadian cities.
Victoria — the oceanside city of gardens and warm weather — ranked last. We’re the least happy people in the country when it comes to the way we live.
The happiest city is Saint John, N.B., also an oceanside city, but in most ways the opposite of Victoria. It’s a city of industry and faded glory, not gardens. There’s a pulp mill on one side of town and a sprawling oil refinery on the other. Poverty is much more prevalent; the average family income is 15 per cent lower. The climate is much harsher — cold, snowy winters, foggy, gloomy springs. On many levels, the city has struggled for much of the last 100 years.
So why are the people there happier than us?
I’ve lived in both, and propose two reasons. (They fit with a larger theory of geography as destiny.)
Saint John’s glory days ended in 1860; since then there has been a steady exodus of people, mostly seeking work and opportunity.
It’s not just that people moved away. It’s who moved away. For decades, Saint John has lost the ambitious, bright and career-focused. It was not a place of opportunity. Those who sought it – in business, or science or any other area – picked up and moved away.
There are thousands of exceptions. But Saint John, like much of the Maritimes, lost a lot of bright, achieving people over the years. Bad news for the communities in many ways.
There’s a flip side, though. The people who left — by definition — placed a lower value on community and family and friends. If those things were important to them, they would have stayed.
The people who remained valued those things, and nurtured them.
And they are happier today.
Here in Victoria, the population has been increasing for decades. The people who come here aren’t interested in career. This is a pretty small backwater, really.
And they aren’t that interested in community or family. They chose to leave those things behind, after all.
They’re interested – generalizing broadly - in a pleasant, easy place to pursue their individual interests – especially things like gardening and golf and sailing and hiking that require warm weather.
There’s nothing wrong with that. It might indicate selfishness or self-absorption. Equally, it could show a commitment to exploring individual interests and passions.
But the result is that a lot of people not much interested in community have ended up living here.
And the study suggests that we’re less happy as a result.
This isn’t all just my — logical — conjecture. A colleague reminded me of a reader research project done about a decade ago for the Times Colonist. The consultant, from the U.S., found our market interesting in part because people here had what she called “low news needs.” Their interest often stopped at the property line.
There’s nothing definitely good or bad about all this. People have a right to pursue personal interests, ambition or a great fondness for the place they grew up.
But the research does suggest that we pay a price in happiness for our lack of community here.
We should worry about that. In fact, it’s puzzling how little weight we give to the whole idea of happiness in thinking about the way our society or community or lives function. We measure economic performance religiously, and even monitor health stats and school performance scores. The Progress Board can tell you how British Columbia ranks with other provinces on everything from research spending to poverty to environmental protection.
But not in happiness.
It’s something worth thinking a lot more about. Who wants to live in the least happy city in Canada?
Footnote: The decline of geographic community has been one of the biggest changes in North American life over the past 40 years. We were bound together in a web of social relationships – church groups, service clubs, community sports leagues, curling clubs, even neighbourhood gatherings for drinks parents who gathered Friday nights for drinks and games – that has largely unravelled.