A distinctly happy society


Montrealers enjoying a performance by Streetnix at the Montreal Jazz Festival. It turns out that Quebecers in general are among the happiest people on the planet. (Photo: Montreal Jazz Fest)

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.


Happiness is… a large subcortical brain volume?


Share this article:


10 Responses to “A distinctly happy society”
  1. Gary says:

    This is some kind of a bizarre joke, right? Animus between English and French is running at an all-time high in Quebec, thanks to the hideous racism of Pauline Marois et al. How can -anyone- be expected to be happy in such a toxic atmosphere where pushing the Anglos out of the province is the singular obsession of the Parti Quebecois? Either the research predates the political turn-of-events that led to the election of Mme. Marois, or the research is severely flawed.

    • Alain R says:

      That happiness comes from this particular «joie de vivre» that is so striking to any North Americans visiting Québec. It is too bad that some Montreal anglos like you Gary(and sometimes from Canada) are still reluctant to be part of it and prefer to see Quebecers as being against the anglophone culture, which in my opinion is exactly the opposite. For example, my son-in-law, an anglophone living in Montréal for decades, has no idea at all about any French-speaking actors, musicians and television stars known to 95% of the population in Québec and, representing 78% of the Montreal community who are French-speaking citizens, THAT is THE big problem! And, what is worse, they are not even aware of it. Instead of trying to understand and share that Montreal French culture they prefer to think and spread it all over, that Quebec people don’t accept them and, are racists. Totally wrong! It is simply because the Québécois don’t want their French language (especially in Montréal) to fade in or slowly disappear among 375 million English-speaking North Americans; as simple as that. The Quebec society is the most open-minded in Canada, having accepted and helped integrating immigrants for four decades all over the province. After Paris, Montréal was the second largest French-speaking city in the world but, for how long if French is not spoken that much now? Actually, French is slowly and surely disappearing from the Montreal scene in many aspects: movies, drama, music, slightly losing this international label as such. No surprise the Parti Québécois government is aware of that precarious situation and intend to do something about it without depriving the anglo community of any rights at all.. despite what they say.

  2. Christopher Smith says:

    Funny that to illustrate the article about how happy Quebeckers are, the four happy musicians portrayed are all adopted Quebeckers, born and raised outside Quebec. I wonder if that contributes to their happiness?

    • Hugh Topham says:

      @ Chris, Maybe you are happy about the happy sounds you are making! Streetnix does seem to generate an awful lot of happy sound……… I just wish they had included the name of the band in the article.

      • Daniel William McCabe says:

        I’m afraid we didn’t know the name of the band — thanks for supplying it. I’ll update the caption information

  3. themnaghmar says:

    Do they still have half sized signs for the Anglais there professor? Or is that a stupid question?

  4. Ghislain says:

    Mister Barrington-Leigh is contradicting the popular view relayed by Québec media that we are so miserable because of our high provincial debt and high taxes.

    When I travelled across Canada last summer (we drove all the way to Vancouver and came back), it struck me when i heard about some crews of oil, gas and coal workers that filled the motels in Saskatchewan and Alberta and were often spending part of their pay getting drunk. I did not get a sense that these workers were so happy, even though they were making lots of money without bothering to make graduate studies. Honestly, i prefer to live in a province that is focusing more on renewable energy and shutting down its only nuclear plant.

    I think the support for young families for parental leave and daycare is also valuable to improve their happiness.

  5. Roz says:

    Gary…this data does predate Mme. Marois et al. Also, so many Anglos have left Quebec that the majority reside in the island of Montreal…an island both physical and figurative…and I’m guessing that statistically they don’t amount to a significant proportion of those “polled” in this study.
    Why wouldn’t Quebecers be happy…they benefit from gazillions of “equalization” dollars that come from the rest of Canada. Who wouldn’t be happy if they could send their kids to supervised daycare for $7.00 a day…ask other Canadians, including my 3 daughters who pay upwards of $1100 a month for each child. Some country, this Canada, eh?

  6. David says:

    I can’t speak for the rest of Quebec, but Montreal is a lovely city to live in for many, many reasons. The linguistic tensions that keep surfacing are certainly not pleasant, but it tends to be the politicians who bring that stuff up. In day-to-day life, people get along well.