Economists, happiness and barbeque conversations with annoying Outside relatives

If you’ve ever been trapped at a summer barbeque in some big city where annoying relatives keep asking why you live in the Yukon, I have some good news.

The Vancouver School of Economics at UBC has come to the rescue, with a study on happiness in Canada based on 400,000 life-satisfaction surveys from 1,215 mini-regions across Canada.

Economics has traditionally worried more about gross domestic product than human happiness. Fresh research, however, is breaking new trail for the profession and UBC professors are at the forefront.

UBC’s Professor John Helliwell is co-author of the World Happiness Report — yes, that’s the title — along with global economic rock stars such as Richard Layard of the London School of Economics and Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University.

Over the last decade or two, economists have been fine tuning how to measure happiness and have been doing increasingly ambitious studies.

Helliwell along with Hugh Shiplett and colleagues recently released a report on those 1,215 mini-regions, including the Yukon. Each mini-region has at least 250 respondents, so they have a solid statistical basis.

The first finding is that average happiness varies widely among mini-regions across Canada, from 7.0 to 8.9 out of ten. That may not sound like much, but it is highly statistically significant (more than 20 standard errors, in case you’re asking).

This counters the opinion held by some that people adapt to their surroundings and, other than during wars or similar disasters, have similar levels of happiness.

There is enough data to split the Yukon into two mini-regions, one around Whitehorse and a second covering the rest of the Yukon. The Whitehorse mini-region ranked 593rd out of 1,215. Statisticians would tell you not to read too much into the exact ranking of one mini-region versus another. But if you woke up one recent morning and exclaimed, “I feel slightly above median,” then you would be in line with the Whitehorse data.

In comparison, the rest of the Yukon clocked in at 1,041st.

The study breaks the 1,215 regions down into five groups, then looks at the differences between the happiest fifth of communities and the least happy fifth. It found a surprisingly small link between happiness in the mini-regions and standard economic metrics. Despite the amount of time economists and government officials spend talking about household income and the unemployment rate, these did not have a statistically significant impact on happiness.

On the other hand there are a number of factors you should memorize for your next big-city shindig with those tiresome relatives.

The top fifth tend to enjoy some things associated with smaller and more rural communities. This includes shorter commute times, lower population density, lower housing costs and a greater sense of belonging to the local community. The top fifth communities also tend to have significantly more people who have resided in the area for five or more years.

Taken in aggregate, the overall story suggests that “life is significantly less happy in urban areas.” This is consistent with a previous study, which had Toronto and Vancouver in a “virtual tie for bottom spot” among the 98 regions defined in that study.

The Whitehorse mini-region’s results are close to the Canadian median in several areas, including the sense of community belonging and the proportion of people spending more than 30 per cent of their household incomes on housing. We had fewer people having lived here for five years or more, lower population density, fewer foreign-born residents and shorter commute times.

The mini-region representing the rest of the Yukon had a greater sense of community belonging than Whitehorse, as well as shorter commute times, fewer people having to spend 30 per cent or more of their household incomes on housing, fewer foreign born residents and a much lower population density. The rest of the Yukon also had a higher mix of people who had lived there more than five years.

If the national relationships highlighted in the study held, then they would suggest these factors would make the rest of the Yukon relatively happier than Whitehorse.

However, as noted above, Whitehorse ranked 593rd and the rest of the Yukon 1,041st. This could be the result of a statistical anomaly. The methodological appendix doesn’t mention if the rest-of-Yukon surveys were undertaken when it was -40. Or perhaps there are other factors the economists need to include in their next study.

It’s good that big-name economists are studying human happiness. As they refine their studies, it should be useful to help policy makers make good decisions.

The study of happiness is serious academic business. It shouldn’t be used for cheap point scoring at the expense of Canada’s less fortunate regions. However, if your annoying relatives keep raising the topic, you can tell them that if you slotted our scores into Canada’s biggest city, Whitehorse’s score is happier than 98 of Toronto’s 104 mini-regions.

If that doesn’t keep them quiet, I suggest you start asking them when the Maple Leafs last won the Stanley Cup.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.