A distinctly happy society

by Joel Yanofsky, BA'77, MA'81

Late in 2012, just as Quebecers were preparing to make their New Year’s resolutions, an op-ed column appeared in The Gazette that took one major problem off the table. Quebecers didn’t have to resolve to be happier, according to McGill assistant professor and well-being researcher Christopher Barrington-Leigh. They already were.

Based on a series of recent surveys and statistics, Barrington-Leigh concluded in his op-ed that Quebec was not only the happiest province in Canada, but among the happiest places in the world. Only Denmark ranked higher, he added.

Barrington-Leigh first began to study Quebecers’ sense of well-being and life satisfaction while earning his PhD in economics at the University of British Columbia. But the fact that he ended up here, 18 months ago, continuing his research at McGill’s Institute for Health and Social Policy (IHSP) was just a happy coincidence for a self-described “happiness economist.”

“I applied for positions all over the world, but I wanted to stay in Canada and my first faculty job turned out to be this one,” he says from his office at the IHSP building on Pine Avenue. “I have to say there’s no city I have felt as at home in as fast as Montreal.”

His own comfort level notwithstanding, there’s an element of surprise embedded in the conclusions Barrington-Leigh condensed for the op-ed and explored in far greater detail and complexity in a recently published paper entitled “The Quebec Convergence and Canadian Life Satisfaction 1985-2008.” In this paper, Barrington-Leigh not only focused on Quebec’s “significant increase in life satisfaction,” but on how unexpected this fact continues to be.

“Ask most people where the happiest place to live in Canada is and they don’t tend to think of Quebec,” Barrington-Leigh says.

However, by relying on life-satisfaction questionnaires done by Statistics Canada over the last two-and-a-half decades, Barrington-Leigh highlighted the province’s dramatic reversal in attitude. In 1985, for instance, only 32 percent of Quebecers reported being “very satisfied” with their life as a whole, ranking them some 20 percent below other Canadians. By 2008, 71 percent of Quebecers rated their satisfaction with their lives at eight or higher on a scale of 1-10.

Of course, as Barrington-Leigh acknowledges, statistics tend to raise more questions than they answer. Determining the reasons for the changes in Quebec, as well as the broader implications behind those reasons, is at the heart of his research at the IHSP.

An interdisciplinary institute, founded in 2007, the IHSP has been an ideal fit for Barrington-Leigh. “What ties my colleagues and me together here is that we’re all – philosophers, historians, epidemiologists, psychologists – doing research we think is relevant to making policy.”

One thing Barrington-Leigh’s Quebec research reveals is that policy, based on the traditional assumption in economics that income level accounts for a population’s sense of well-being, bears re-examining. After all, Quebec incomes have “remained modest in the Canadian context” at the same time that there has been “a shift in life satisfaction.” All this supports Barrington-Leigh’s assumption that other things might be better able to explain the shift – in particular, “a broader set of social-democratic policies” in Quebec and a society that has become “much more equal over the last two decades.”

“The data about Quebec appears to be telling us you can predict people’s life satisfaction better or at least as well by just looking at their rank in their local population,” Barrington-Leigh says. “So while measures of inequality may be going up here, they’re going up less than in the rest of Canada.”

In his conclusion to the study, Barrington-Leigh muses that Quebec may have experienced a certain "Scandinavianisation" in recent years.

Scandinavian countries tend to do well in surveys that focus on quality of life measures and Quebec "has undergone a shift, as compared with the rest of Canada, towards a more Nordic set of institutions, including low after-tax income inequality, low religiosity, less formal marriage, and strong family and social supports provided by the government."

At 39, Barrington-Leigh is a late-comer to the field of economics. In fact, he began his education studying physics - all in all, 12 years at Stanford, Berkeley, and M.I.T. Still, as hard as it was to leave physics behind and play catch-up as an economist – “I became famous at UBC for asking really stupid questions,” he says – he knew he wanted to do something socially relevant, maybe even influence policy.

His research at IHSP may be starting to do just that. “By chance and fortuitously, we’re finding that many things that explain life-satisfaction do not have a material component. Neither income nor consumption are the be-all and end-all,” Barrington-Leigh says.

“That’s how I see this research having a huge impact. It’s a way of putting pressure on our popular thinking. It allows us to: a. Better measure what matters. And b. Re-evaluate what those things are.”

Joel Yanofsky is a Montreal writer. His latest book is Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism.