Tuesday, January 01, 2008

If this is such a great place, why aren’t we happier

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.


Anonymous said...

We have lived in Victoria three times since coming to the west coast. First couple of times we were both working and found that for a considerable time we were missing out on a lot of what was going on locally. After ten years or so we found we were beginning to be treated like locals. Now retired, we came back as one of our children and her husband lives here with their four kids. The kids all born here don't accpet the old idea of what a great place it is to live, especially as they start to look out side the local area. We all doubt they will stay here. 3 of the 4 have at least one degree but agree that opportunities to advance is found elsewhere. Victoria for years considered it's elf a little bit of England , which as we all know is simple baloney. Torism is big business but the local busninsses have always considered the customer lucky that they the staff actually gets around to producing the product needed. Paul has the right idea, the temperature is moderate, the prices are way too high Might be time to flog our overpriced condo and go elsewhere

Anonymous said...

This jives nicely with the comment I made in your previous entry...


Here's the "better" newspaper crowing about how certain neighbourhoods have entered into the "exclusive" range because they have homes costing over a million dollars.

Somehow expecting a rag like the Vancouver Sun to do something as legitimate as asking if maybe many of these homes are overpriced - and the social implications of that pricing - is asking too much.
But there was a time when the reasonably logical conclusion of homelessness might be tied to people being priced out of a place to live.

Champagne wishes and caviar dreams.

Anonymous said...

Happiness is a rather subjective measurement compared to the economy or health - that's why it isn't carefully tracked. I hate to think of state management of "happiness" in any case. This was traditionally the point of religion, and I think the state does a lousy job whenever it attempts to legislate morality. To comment on the general unhappiness on the BC coast, I think it's mainly a reflection of the culture shock resulting from rapid growth over the past 20 years. The cities are growing into metropolises, the cultural composition of society has shifted dramatically, and life here is more expensive and more crowded because it really is a desirable place to live.

Joohn said...

Thanks for useful tips

Rick Bateman said...

Hi Paul. I enjoyed your article thanks. The issue of the perils of social disconnection is currently like the weather, everybody talks about it but nobody is doing anything about it – however I am an exception to that. I have an organization specifically focused on one thing, fostering social connection.

The reason I am concerned about it is that social disconnection does not just make us less happy, it has a profound impact on our mental and physical health. This impact is now well supported by plenty of scientific research. See http://socialcircles.ca/links.htm

I have been aware of the perils of social isolation for about two years now and you are correct, in Victoria it is worse than many other parts of the country. See the results of my survey at http://socialcirclescanada.blogspot.com/2007/10/victoria-area-social-wellness-survey.html

These Victoria folk you are referring to who think that spending time in their garden or on interior design is now all that they need to do since their investment portfolio is sitting pretty are in for a big wake up call – the thing they will find they need and value most in the coming years is the very thing they are neglecting and not investing in – social connection.

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day about the fact the urbanization and social isolation go hand in hand. He told me about the farm families he knows on the prairies who value and nurture relationships with their neighbors because they know they will need that neighbors help one day. That is the key thing we city folk have forgotten – we need each other.

Kind regards,

Rick Bateman
Social Circles Canada

Anonymous said...