The votes are in and … money is not what brings happiness

Earlier this week, an article appears in Canada’s self-proclaimed national newspaper (which no longer provides print copies here in Atlantic Canada!) that immediately caught my attention: “Money really isn’t everything: The surprising new ranking of Canada’s happiest – and most miserable – places to live”. Needless to say, I was anxious to see what it had to say. Although our town isn’t large enough to make the “Cities” list, our two provincial “sister cities” made it and, lo and behold, one came in at 6th out of 34 Canadian census metropolitan areas (Saint John) and the other made 9th out of 34 (Moncton). I know, surprising, right?!


Even more interesting than Canada’s happiest cities (Saguenay, Que., Trois-Rivières, Que., St. John’s, Nfld., and Sudbury, Ont.) and most unhappy cities (Toronto and Vancouver) is that the happiest region in Canada is Atlantic Canada. [Take that, Stephen Harper, one of my least favourite politicians, who infamously declared that Atlantic Canadians have a defeatist attitude.] According to this study, people become less happy as you go west in Canada, even though their incomes rise! Now, although I was, not surprisingly, delighted to read this, living in Atlantic Canada, the reality is that Canada overall is a pretty happy place by world standards anyway. And of course there are plenty of pockets of high satisfaction with life throughout the country, including in Toronto and Vancouver (especially if you inherited your house!). It’s all relative within our borders. But still, it’s now official; if you want to be really happy, just move to Atlantic Canada! The big question is: Why?

There is no doubt that seeking a formula for personal happiness is big business these days. Just think of all the money Gretchen Rubin made from her best seller, The Happiness Project. I wonder if she’s happy! And what about the success of books about Danish Hygge, the Danish philosophy that apparently provides the answers to why Denmark is considered to be one of the world’s happiest country. Identifying the most truly meaningful indicators of happiness has become serious business. In some part thanks to the small Himalayan country of Bhutan and its introduction of Gross National Happiness as a measure of success rather than GDP, the world now has an annually updated World Happiness Index.

What are the common markers of happiness in a country? While GDP is certainly one, it’s very much only one. Scoring poorly in income inequality is a significant detriment to national happiness. In other words, you can be the richest country in the world, but if most of the money is in the hands of the few, that is not going to help you score well on the World Happiness Index. Accessible healthcare for all, a welcoming and tolerant society, trust in government, lack of corruption, high or increasing life expectancy, and good parental leave policies are all recognized as contributing to national happiness. Within this context, what makes different cities and different regions within Canada have these relative differences in happiness? It clearly isn’t about money; everyone in Canada would confirm that Atlantic Canada is the poor neighbour of the rest of Canada, even without a defeatist attitude. 😉

“Incomes used to be thought of as the primary source and determinant of happiness, but it’s clear that’s not the case,” Prof. John Helliwell, one of the authors of this study, says. “It’s important to be able to feed yourself and provide yourself with necessities, but beyond a certain point, a higher income doesn’t stack up to having good friends and family nearby.” In fact, other studies on happiness indices have found that within a region or city with a high overall happiness score, the top 20% of the income earners and the bottom 20% have similar feelings about the quality of their lives in their communities. As well, immigrants typically respond similarly to long-time residents with respect to their life satisfaction in their city or region. The word “communities” really describes the defining difference: a sense of community and social connectedness is what makes people happy. The research shows that trust and warmer connections with fellow citizens offset lower incomes. And, of course, having more time to build and nurture social connections simply because of shorter commutes may have quite a bit to do with that difference between big cities and smaller ones.

In a recent post I wrote about the hit musical Come From Away and its real-life counterpart, the Atlantic Canada province of Newfoundland, I described just how friendly and trusting Newfoundlanders are known to be, exactly as was portrayed in the musical, when Newfoundlanders unexpectedly welcomed thousands of stranded airplane travelers during the nightmarish time of 9/11. Newfoundland is an island (a big one), and I had pondered in that post as to whether this trusting and welcoming – aka happy – nature is more often found in island populations. Since I wrote that I came across a BBC travel article that offers at least one other island (actually an archipelago of islands) that does just that: Hawaii. Newfoundland and Hawaii, what a mind-blowing pairing1



From the BBC article, a description of the author’s initial days in Hawaii:

“It was mid-afternoon on our second day living in Hawaii, and I woke up groggy from a much-needed power nap. I stumbled into the kitchen where my girlfriend was sitting on the floor with the guy from the cable company. He had come to set up our internet – something we direly needed, because our house is situated in a lush valley with no mobile phone signal. But, I realised, they weren’t even talking about the internet. Instead, I found, he was inviting her to come boar hunting with him.

As the days passed, the friendly happenings increased. We stopped by a neighbourhood farm and were offered avocados from the caretaker’s tree. We arrived at the end of a hiking trail, or so we thought, when a passing father and daughter offered to show us the secret additional part of the path that led up a rock face, over boulders and through a stream to a hidden waterfall. On another occasion, we were headed for a swim in the ocean, when someone on shore warned us that the current was too strong to swim safely, then offered us a beer and invited us to go canoeing.”

Now, OK, the boar hunting would have to be replaced by moose hunting and instead of being offered avocados you’d be more likely to get a few wild berries, but other than that the spirit of these exchanges captures the kind of welcome you’d get in Newfoundland or, for that matter, pretty well anywhere in Atlantic Canada. It turns out, according to this BBC article, that this is called the Aloha spirit of Hawaii. And Aloha is not just a popular greeting in Hawaii, it is the law! Aloha captures how people are meant to treat each other. The philosophy is intended to ensure that people treat both each other and the land with respect; the law specifies that, among other things, public servants and politicians shall fulfil their responsibilities with this spirit in mind. Hawaii’s Aloha Spirit law, essentially mandates consideration and kindness:
“Akahai, meaning kindness to be expressed with tenderness;
Lōkahi, meaning unity, to be expressed with harmony;
ʻOluʻolu, meaning agreeable, to be expressed with pleasantness;
Haʻahaʻa, meaning humility, to be expressed with modesty;
Ahonui, meaning patience, to be expressed with perseverance.”

It seems to me that if countries, regions, states, provinces, and cities want to increase the sense of life satisfaction – the happiness – of their citizens, this Aloha Spirit law is a good place to start.  It works for Atlantic Canada.  Aloha, my friends! 🙂

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5 Responses to The votes are in and … money is not what brings happiness

  1. barryh says:

    Thank you. Very interesting post!


  2. Dr B says:

    As others have said, an interesting post with healthy questions posed about the report. But …. I always remember Statistics stuff from my university days and getting my head around “correlation does NOT equal causality”! One of our examples was that children passed more exams up the education chain related to how many bathrooms you had in your home, 3 bathroom children being more successful than 1 bathroom children! Naturally, the question arises that in order to help your children succeed more …. build a couple of extra bathrooms on your house! So, if someone in a low happiness area moved to one of a higher happiness would they automatically become happier? I’ll shut up! 👍😂👫


    • Jane Fritz says:

      Lol re bathrooms. I can imagine that going from no indoor bathroom to one would make a difference in success in education, for sure! According to the various articles and reports I’ve read, although it wouldn’t be automatic, yes, the likelihood of someone becoming happier (more satisfied with their life) by moving (and then living!) in a happier place would be high. It’s like magic; when people are nice to each other – and have time for each other – they’re happier! 😊


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