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.

Monday, December 31, 2007

A New Year's resolution, with a twist

A New Year’s resolution, with a twist
I’ve been writing similar columns this time of year for a while now, always urging readers to make the same resolution.
Decide to pay attention for the next 12 months. To the people closest to you, but also to the way life works for people in your town and across the world. We’re not good at paying attention.
We suddenly notice people have changed - children have grown up, parents have grown old, lovers have grown apart. We wonder, when did that happen?
Of course it happened every day, right in front of us. But we weren’t paying attention.
We miss a lot. You grow close to people when you share experiences with them, travel through life together.
But if you don’t notice where their lives are taking them, the little bumps and joys, you’re left behind. Soon you’re somewhere else all together.
And the smallest things you missed put you there. A hesitation when you ask how things are. A laugh. A brief sad look. The kind of things you don’t notice, unless you’re paying attention.
It’s not just about the people right around you, though. I believe that when people see that something is wrong - an injustice, cruelty, waste, foolishness - they want to right it.
If they can’t, they expect those responsible to fix it, with that responsibility often falling to governments.
I have to believe that. There’s not much point in writing this kind of column unless you believe that people will consider the information and analysis and - at least sometimes - do something with it. Just chronicling our troubles isn’t enough.
I also believe it’s true. It takes us a while for us to figure out there is really a problem, and then longer to decide what to do. Longer still to judge who should do it.
But we don’t like to see people left behind, or children in care shortchanged, or businesses struggling with pointless government regulations and paperwork. Eventually, we deal with the problems.
But only if we notice - if we’re paying attention.
Here in Victoria, we’ve suddenly noticed big problems on our streets. Drunken louts at bar closing time. A lot of homeless people, including many dealing with serious mental illness, damaging drug addictions or both.
They didn’t just appear one day, a group of 50 hanging around the needle exchange, panhandlers on the corners, heaps of belongings and cold-looking people outside Streetlink, the main shelter.
But we didn’t notice when the first people released from mental hospitals in the 1970s, with the promise of support in the community, started showing up on the streets. The support wasn’t there; they could make their way without it; so they fell.
We didn’t notice when the small group of older alcohol addicts were joined by more and more people haunted by cocaine, their limbs twitching, sores on neck and arms and faces.
Because we didn’t notice, governments thought we didn’t care. If we’d been paying attention, it would never have got so bad.
Instead, this all got so much worse that we now face a giant problem.
So I’m amending the resolution that I hope you’ll adopt. It’s still to pay attention. And really, it’s best to start close to home. With the people you live with each day, the world you inhabit - the way the breeze feels on your face or the sky looks like at dusk on a middling spring day.
But when it comes to the bigger world, maybe this year we could all resolve to focus. To pick something that seems wrong, and make it better.
Maybe it troubles you that children in care are pushed out into the world the day they turn 19, with no real support or guidance. (Except for the efforts of some extraordinary foster parents.) Or you don’t think people with mental illnesses should be dumped on the streets.
Pick something, and resolve to make it better by the end of the year. Demand action of politicians. Give some money. Give some time. Hold yourself accountable.
Footnote: To the regular readers out there, and the editors who decide to run the columns: Thanks. It’s a great privilege to be able to share information and thoughts on things I think important. And a great responsibility. I do appreciate you’re willingness to read this far, whether you agree with me or not.