So Canada placing 15th in the World Happiness Report is good, right? Not so fast, researchers say
Earlier this month, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network released its annual World Happiness Report, a publication that ranks countries according to how “happy” its citizens are.
Of the 146 countries ranked, Canada placed at No. 15, one position higher than the United States, so we won that horse race. (Phew!) We failed to be as cheerful as the folks who scooped positions one through 14, a list that includes Sweden, Israel, New Zealand and Finland, the latter of which is apparently the happiest place on earth.
Fifteenth in the world is pretty good though, isn’t it? Not according to University of Toronto researchers focused on population well-being who analyzed the numbers a little more carefully and published their report on the report, the Canadian Happiness Report.
“A lot of people are happy with being in the top 20 and we’re used to being there,” says Sofia Panasiuk, a psychology student at the University of Toronto leading the Canadian Happiness Report. “But if you’re looking at trends rather than absolute ranking, our ‘life satisfaction’ has been decreasing over the past 10 years compared to other countries that are going in the right direction.”
In 2010, Panasiuk notes, Canada was sitting pretty at No. 5, so we’re trending in the wrong direction. Worse, she said she was “shocked” to see where Canada placed on the “changing life satisfaction” metric: we’re No. 106 out of 146. So fewer Canadians think their life satisfaction is improving than in other countries.
Our first instinct might be to point the finger at COVID-19 for our decline, since the pandemic has been stressful and made it more difficult to do some of the activities that increase happiness. Felix Cheung, Canada research chair in population well-being and psychology professor at U of T, says we can’t assign all of the blame to COVID.
“If you look purely at the period of the pandemic, you can see that life satisfaction has dropped 0.2 per cent, which is still significant but very small,” said Cheung. “We can see from our report that this is a negative trend that began before COVID, so while we appreciate that the pandemic has placed mental health and well-being in the centre stage, it looks like recovering from the pandemic will not solve this problem alone.”
Happiness, Panasiuk explained, is influenced by genetics, external factors and the things we do as individuals to increase our happiness, such as going for a walk or hanging out with a friend.
“There are a bunch of different strategies like gratitude journals, for example, that have been shown to increase our well-being a little bit,” she said. “And with the advent of the culture of self-help and self-care, we might expect happiness to be increasing but, instead, we’re seeing that trend going in the opposite direction.”
The problem for people researching well-being at the population level is that, so far, the data used to determine happiness levels comes from a small sample size that fails to dig into the cause of our apparent declining happiness. Plus it’s hard to measure.
“The rise of social sciences and psychological sciences over the last 150 years has seen us move toward the quantification and the measurement of things that are fundamentally difficult to measure, like happiness,” says Kevin O’Neill, study of religion professor and director of U of T’s Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies. “Happiness isn’t an element like water that can be weighed or assessed in terms of density or volume. It’s pretty ephemeral.”
That said, O’Neill definitely believes that happiness is having a moment, based on his research, conversations he’s having and interest in his new happiness course at the university, which was quickly wait-listed. Only the room size is limiting enrolment.
Although obtaining happiness might be a current obsession with a lot of people, one of the big take-aways from O’Neill’s course is that the pursuit of happiness is nothing new. People have been writing about it for millennia.
“A lot of the advice that we’re given today, largely coming from cognitive behavioural psychologists, is practical advice that comes from religious tradition,” he said. “When we read that we should be more mindful, or follow our breath or practise gratitude, these are practices that were often developed in third- or fourth-century communities that made very radical decisions to live simpler lives.”
And our desire to be as happy as possible might even play a role in our levels of dissatisfaction and anxiety. Our attempts to measure it and probe relative happiness levels lead to questions about whether or not we’re happy enough.
“There is this North American impulse toward abundance, which can apply to anything including happiness,” said O’Neill. “There’s this idea that there’s no ceiling to the amount of happiness that we can attain. And that kind of expectation sets us up for wondering why we aren’t happier or asking questions like, ‘Why I am I not as happy as I was yesterday?’”
And, of course, a brand new question we might not have thought of before this report, namely, “Would I be happier if I moved to Finland?”