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.

Yukonomist

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Willow Brewster, a paramedic helping in the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre, holds a swab used for the COVID-19 test moments before conducting a test with it on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
An inside look at the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre

As the active COVID-19 case count grew last week, so too did… Continue reading

Conservation officers search for a black bear in the Riverdale area in Whitehorse on Sept. 17. The Department of Environment intends to purchase 20 semi-automatic AR-10 rifles, despite the inclusion of the weapons in a recently released ban introduced by the federal government, for peace officers, such as conservation officers. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Environment Minister defends purchase of AR-10 rifles for conservation officers

The federal list of banned firearms includes an exception for peace officers

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: The K-shaped economic recovery and what Yukoners can do about it

It looks like COVID-19 will play the role of Grinch this holiday… Continue reading

Jodie Gibson has been named the 2020 Prospector of the Year by the Yukon Prospectors Association. (Submitted)
Jodie Gibson named 2020 Prospector of the Year

Annual award handed out by the Yukon Prospector’s Association

A number 55 is lit in honour of Travis Adams, who died earlier this year, at the Winter Wonderland Walk at Meadow Lakes Golf Club in Whitehorse on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
A new take on holiday traditions

Winter Wonderland Walk, virtual Stories with Santa all part of 2020 festive events in Whitehorse

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

Colin McDowell, the director of land management for the Yukon government, pulls lottery tickets at random during a Whistle Bend property lottery in Whitehorse on Sept. 9, 2019. A large amount of lots are becoming available via lottery in Whistle Bend as the neighbourhood enters phase five of development. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Lottery for more than 250 new Whistle Bend lots planned for January 2021

Eight commercial lots are being tendered in additional to residential plots

The Government of Yukon Main Administration Building in Whitehorse on Aug. 21. The Canada Border Services Agency announced Nov. 26 that they have laid charges against six people, including one Government of Yukon employee, connected to immigration fraud that involved forged Yukon government documents. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Charges laid in immigration fraud scheme, warrant out for former Yukon government employee

Permanent residency applications were submitted with fake Yukon government documents

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Karen Wenkebach has been appointed as a judge for the Yukon Supreme Court. (Yukon News file)
New justice appointed

Karen Wenckebach has been appointed as a judge for the Supreme Court… Continue reading

Catherine Constable, the city’s manager of legislative services, speaks at a council and senior management (CASM) meeting about CASM policy in Whitehorse on June 13, 2019. Constable highlighted research showing many municipalities require a lengthy notice period before a delegate can be added to the agenda of a council meeting. Under the current Whitehorse procedures bylaw, residents wanting to register as delegates are asked to do so by 11 a.m. on the Friday ahead of the council meeting. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Changes continue to be contemplated for procedures bylaw

Registration deadline may be altered for delegates

Cody Pederson of the CA Storm walks around LJ’s Sabres player Clay Plume during the ‘A’ division final of the 2019 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament. The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28 in Whitehorse next year, was officially cancelled on Nov. 24 in a press release from organizers. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament cancelled

The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28… Continue reading

Lev Dolgachov/123rf
The Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner stressed the need to safeguard personal information while shopping this holiday season in a press release on Nov. 24.
Information and Privacy Commissioner issues reminder about shopping

The Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Diane McLeod-McKay stressed the need to… Continue reading

Most Read