Why Quebecers are feeling so happy

(A touch of pandemonium helps)
Michael Buckner / Variety / Getty

Happiness is becoming serious business.

This week saw the release of the second annual World Happiness Report, a United Nations project overseen by University of British Columbia economics professor emeritus John Helliwell, based on surveys asking people in 156 countries if they were happy yesterday and/or are satisfied with their life in general.

For Canadians, the headline figure was a sixth-place finish, down one place from last year. Denmark once again took top spot as the happiest place on Earth. Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden rounded out the top five, giving the UN leader board a distinctly self-satisfied, Scandinavian flavour.

If you accept the usefulness of subjective measures of well-being—and an increasing number of politicians around the world are taking happiness figures very seriously—Canada’s performance alongside our northern neighbours seems reassuringly top-tier.

And yet national figures can mask substantial variation within a country. Dig a bit deeper into Canadian happiness and you uncover some unexpected results that may challenge many cherished values.

In a paper published this summer in the academic journal Canadian Public Policy, Montreal’s McGill University economist Christopher Barrington-Leigh takes a close look at happiness in Quebec over the past three decades. Quebecers used to be the least-happy folks in the country. “When Canada first started recording life-satisfaction data in 1985, Quebec was off the bottom of the scale,” says Barrington-Leigh in an interview. “Since then, we have seen an almost steady increase. Quebec is now the happiest large province in the country.” He adds that, if Quebec were a nation by itself, the latest figures would put it second only to Denmark in international life-satisfaction rankings. (The professor has prepared a short animation, which can be seen on YouTube, showing the remarkable rise of Quebec’s happiness.)

While small, rural provinces such as Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island still tend to report higher life-satisfaction results than larger provinces marked by big urban centres, Quebec’s rise from inconsolable to happier-than-most demands some explanation.

With the province marked by high taxes and large public debt, Barrington-Leigh dismisses rising personal incomes as a possible reason for Quebec’s mood improvement. The same goes for income distribution. The most likely factor, the economist figures, is an alteration in the social fabric due to Quebec’s unique political, cultural and linguistic changes over time. “People who feel part of a common society tend to do well on life-satisfaction surveys,” he says.

The same thing can be seen in the success of those other Scandinavian countries at the top of the UN’s happiness chart; all are marked by homogeneous populations, unifying monocultures and high levels of public expenditures.

Quebec’s nation-building exercises that so often aggravate the rest of Canada and impede the efficiency of the country as a whole—language laws, constitutional obstructionism, demands to operate parallel federal programs, etc. etc.—all appear to contribute to a common provincial identity, and thus, improve reported life satisfaction. The same goes for keynote social programs such as daycare. The more Quebec makes itself different from the rest of Canada, the happier it gets.

These results also suggest the controversial Charter of Quebec Values—released in draft form this week by the PQ government and which bans overt displays of religiosity in the public sector—will further add to overall happiness within la belle province by increasing social conformity. If a few upset folks leave because of it, so much the better for happiness indicators.

And although trust in government institutions and fellow citizens is typically associated with rising levels of life satisfaction, Barrington-Leigh’s figures show Quebec’s happiness turnaround occurred despite scoring far below other provinces on perceptions of trust. So while current survey data do not include recent municipal and construction industry corruption scandals, these seem unlikely to alter Quebec’s upward happiness trajectory.

Of course, no one would ever begrudge a neighbour’s contentment; but all this presents something of a puzzle for the rest of Canada. If we care about happiness indicators, and if these figures are strongly related to living in close-knit, unified communities, what can, or should, the rest of us be doing to get happier?

A touch of pandemonium might help. Barrington-Leigh speculates the university student riots last year over tuition-fee hikes will eventually increase happiness levels in his province, once new surveys are complete. “Anything that brings people together, even a crisis, tends to increase life satisfaction results,” he says.

And yet, banging pots for happiness seems a tough sell in the rest of Canada. The best solution may lie in recognizing how good we’ve already got it. Note that Canada is the highest-ranking large-scale immigrant-receiving country on the UN’s list. We’re already top of our class. If raising our happiness score further requires a reduction in tolerance and diversity, or a dispersal of population, it doesn’t seem worth the effort. It may sometimes be hard work, but there’s virtue in getting along with folks different than yourself.