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The Pursuit of Happiness

from the National Post: http://www.nationalpost.com/newsletter/story.html?id=203751

This was a timely article as it appeared around the same time I started to read “Stumbling on Happiness”, also mentioned here.

Here’s what stood out for me:

Christopher Barrington-Leigh, an economist at the University of British Columbia, says the initial discoveries in this field have been “revolutionary.”

“Income doesn’t matter much [to happiness], so that’s devastating for economics. And to the degree it does matter, it’s relative, which is devastating for economics, because everything in economics is always assumed to be absolute benefits,” he said.

He cites a comparative study he did, ranking Canadian cities based on income and life satisfaction. What he found was that in the richer cities (Toronto, Calgary, Ottawa) people were the least satisfied with their lives, whereas in the smaller and poorer ones (Charlottetown, Quebec City and especially St. John’s) people were far and away the most happy.

“The richer your metro region, the less happy you are,” he says. “That means that every time you’ve got an economist measuring welfare based on aggregate income, or a politician seeking to expand the GDP of their region, or a central bank who has this idea that GDP is a decent proxy for well-being, those ideas are based on theory that has assumptions that appear to be wrong … When we’re chasing GDP as an economic policy, it’s a rat race. People are no better off if you raise everyone’s boat at once, in economic terms.”

and…

Prof. Haslam’s embarrassment was not immediately pointed out to him, which is unfortunate, because it illustrates a crucial aspect of his theory of happiness, which he developed with John Helliwell of UBC, his partner in a program of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

What they have found is that, if there is a key to happiness, it is belonging — to families, clubs, sports teams, churches, the more the better. Belonging, what they call social connectedness, predicts happiness far better than wealth, health or intelligence. It even predicts how well one will recover from a stroke.

In the maps of major Canadian cities they created based on Statistics Canada data, which plot income, life-satisfaction and trust of one’s neighbours (as judged by one’s estimate of the likelihood that a neighbour would return a wallet they found containing $100), it is clear that the trust map resembles the happiness map far more than the income map does. Pockets of the cities where trust among neighbours is highest correspond to the happy places, and these are often the economically poorer places. Toronto’s Scarborough region is a good example. Similarly, areas of low neighbourly trust correspond to unhappy places, and are often the most wealthy, leafy and seemingly pleasant parts of town.

Social connectedness, they say, is slowly being recognized as the true key to happiness.

“For some reason, people think that certain things are going to make them happier than they do,” says Prof. Barrington-Leigh, a colleague of Prof. Helliwell.

A good example is the trade-off some people have to make between a larger house and a longer commute to work.

“They underestimate how miserable the commute is going to make them,” he says. “They make a mistake, and so we end up being committed to keeping up this lifestyle, when in fact the things that would actually make us happier are these social connections, these community connections, family connections.”

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