Work more. Work harder.
They’re the first rules of improving classical measurements of economics.
But does it make us happy?
A Kamloops accountant who recently graduated from Thompson Rivers University looked at something completely different — a happiness index that doesn’t place income and growth at the top of the pile.
“We don’t have to use income as the sole measure,” said Sara Burchnall, who completed a bachelor of business administration and bachelor of arts in economics last June.
On top of her two degrees, Burchnall applied for a grant from TRU’s undergraduate research program to write a scholarly paper. She originally started on a project to look at well-being on First Nations reserves. But it collapsed after she could not find adequate data.
Instead, Burchnall’s project morphed into finding new ways to measure the welfare of Canadians, outside of gross domestic product and income levels.
What she found may surprise you:
p Higher levels of home ownership don’t lead to more happiness.
p More education at the post-secondary level doesn’t lead to more happiness, in part due to the stresses and debts required to achieve it.
p Higher levels of income don’t lead to more happiness.
The project was spurred in part by the Great Recession beginning in 2008, which caused GDP in G20 nations to stagnate. France and Britain, in particular, announced they would undertake new ways to measure happiness, outside economic growth.
Burchnall said there was little research in Canada on the idea. She used factors identified by Human Resources Development Skills Canada, including housing, health and education.
She then sought out data to measure happiness, using the most recent census as well as a national health survey.
“I thought income would have a higher role,” Burchnall said. “(But) at higher levels of income we don’t see huge spikes in happiness.”
Instead, mental health — including a balance of work and family responsibilities — was a far more important factor.
Another factor that increased happiness was living outside a large urban centre, something that Burchnall said could be related to lack of a sense of security and lack of community belonging. Quebecers were also happier than British Columbians, something Burchnall attributes to decentralized government and policies that focus closely on regions.
Burchnall said where income levels were important to happiness was in relation to what others earn. Rising incomes don’t lead to more happiness if they are accompanied by increasing disparities.
So what’s it all mean?
She acknowledges there are problems with gathering data on the subject, in part because it’s not available and because so much of it is subjective and based on surveys.
But there are clear findings, even from the limited data available in Canada.
Employment is at the core of happiness, Burchnall said. That’s not just because it provides the necessities of life, but due to its social interactions and participation.
But too much work is anathema to well-being, causing stress and a collapse in happiness. She suggests efforts be made to encourage Canadians to focus more on family during child-rearing years and working longer into their senior years, when they have more time and attention.
“During trying economic times, Canadian officials must do their best to protect such happiness and welfare by reinforcing positive behaviours that encourage citizens to lead balanced and healthy lifestyles, particularly with regards to employment,” she wrote.
On the whole, Canadians report being quite happy, according to Burchnall’s literature review.
Our economic reputation would soar if Canadians all stopped taking holidays and worked until death. But the rising economic fortunes wouldn’t be accompanied by rising happiness.
“We’d look amazing on paper, but everyone will be burned out and unhappy . . . There are challenges moving to another model. It’s so subjective. You can’t overlook it. It can’t all be based on income.”