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Sad City

Ours is one of the most beautiful, vibrant, and livable cities in the world. Why aren’t we happy?
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Ours is one of the most beautiful, vibrant, and livable cities in the world. Why aren’t we happy?

I’s been nearly a year since the bad news about Vancouver was broadcast to the world. The CBC picked it up. So did newspapers across the country. A groundbreaking study found that, despite our glorious mountains and ocean, our mild weather, our good health, our Olympic future, and all the livability accolades, Vancouverites are just not as happy as people in St. John, or St. John’s, or Winnipeg. The news was enough to wipe the smug grin from any world-class mug.

Mayoral hopeful Peter Ladner can’t remember when he heard the news, but he remembers who he called to seek an explanation: University of British Columbia professor emeritus John Helliwell, who is not only one of the world’s authorities on the so-called economics of happiness, but one of the study’s authors.

Helliwell—now there’s a happy man. The first time most people encounter him, he’s standing onstage, leading a hundred or so strangers in a rendition of what he calls “The Social Capital Theme Song.” I saw him pull it off with a crowd from the Vancouver Board of Trade, just about the time that our city’s bad news came out. He was beaming beneath a mop of greying hair, squinting through thick glasses at a room full of suits, waving his arms, singing, “The more we get together, together, together!” It would have been discomfiting, really, had the crowd not sung along. But they did. They raised their voices in a joyous noise. “The more we get together, the happier we’ll be!”

Raffi—that’s who Helliwell invokes when rallying troops behind his theories on the economics of happiness. The children’s song really does explain key findings from the emerging research on what Helliwell calls “subjective well-being.” It also offers clues to Vancouver’s comparatively low rating—and how we might climb up the happy scale.

So what does it take to make a city happy? Why aren’t mountain views and a strong economy enough? In a town that looks to real-estate schemes for fulfillment, is it possible to build our way to happiness? To answer these questions, I hooked up with the Subjective Well-being Club, a collective of happiness-obsessed economists, psychologists, and educators at the University of British Columbia. Helliwell is the club’s éminence grise.

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