“Happiness, whatever else people may say, is the great concern of our life.”
— Jean Vanier, Made for Happiness
Since at least the time of Aristotle, the desire for happiness — a state of mind characterized by contentment, satisfaction, pleasure or joy — has been deemed the central driver of human conduct.
As 2016 dawns, a Forum Research poll commissioned by the Star suggests 63 per cent of Ontario adults are extremely or very happy with their lives. Only nine per cent are unhappy with their lot, and a mere two per cent aren’t happy at all.
That’s an impressive degree of contentment in times of economic uncertainty, stagnant wages, precarious employment, a shrinking middle class, global upheaval and climate change.
Forum president Lorne Bozinoff said the poll, which surveyed 1,001 people and is considered accurate to within three percentage points 19 times in 20, suggests Ontarians are increasingly finding contentment in activities centred on home and family.
That is certainly the case for Melanie and Ericson Santos. The married couple grin from ear to ear when they take turns holding their eight-month-old son, Liam.
Melanie came to Toronto from the Philippines six years ago to work as a caregiver and had to leave Ericson and their daughter behind. She went home once a year but last spring the family was finally reunited in Canada.
Even though Ericson has vision problems that have forced him to stop working, the pair is overjoyed the family is whole again.
“We’re together, even though there’s ups and downs,” Melanie said. “What we have right now, that’s more than enough.”
The time-honoured recipe for happiness seems to involve a rough balance of meaningful work, love and play. About two-thirds (64 per cent) were satisfied with their job security, 62 per cent were happy with their sex lives, and the same percentage was happy with their work-life balance.
Overall, the trend line is consistent with rising levels of life satisfaction across Canada over the last decade. This could be explained, in part, by the fact research shows adults grow steadily happier as they move through middle age — as the baby boomers (who haven’t had a ton to be unhappy about during their lifetimes) continue to do.
The list of what creates happiness usually includes love, family, peace of mind, purpose, good times with friends, travel, virtue, service, beauty and truth.
Research increasingly shows that education, climate, race and gender do not have a major effect on long-term happiness. Neither does wealth, once basic material needs have been met. Even if circumstances change, people tend to adapt and happiness levels revert to a personal “set-point.”
The happiness formula, such as one exists, was hinted at in the values that respondents told Forum they most hope to instill in their children. Kindness was the most prized value, followed by work ethic, ambition, leadership, curiosity, courage and teamwork.
In that list is apparent endorsement of what Viktor Frankl argued in his classic Man’s Search for Meaning. Happiness “cannot be pursued,” he wrote. “It must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than one’s self.”
The good news about the prevailing happiness in Ontario is that moods tend to be contagious, as the Dalai Lama, among others, knows. “My happiness depends on others’ happiness,” he wrote. “So when I see happy people, automatically I also feel a little bit happier than when I see people in a difficult situation.”
The bad news is that recent research suggests mere mortals are not very good at accurately reporting our emotional state or at predicting what is likely to make us happy. In his best-selling Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert said that owing to our neurology we get a startling amount wrong.
On the one hand, because of optimism bias and something called the “Hedonic treadmill,” the new and bigger house, car, spouse soon becomes the norm and doesn’t provide the lift we initially imagined.
On the other, our own errant forecasting sometimes plays to our advantage. We’re far more resilient than we often think and are able to cope, relatively contentedly, with events and challenges we imagine would demolish us.
Earlier this year, the World Happiness Report listed Canada as the fifth happiest country in the world. It may be that the recent change in government improved our mood even more. Research shows that people who participate in political activities such as voting are happier than those who don’t.
Whatever the government, it would be wise to make a priority of employment. Nothing is quite so likely to thwart happiness, it turns out, as job loss. This ranks with divorce and separation among downers, followed by chronic pain, depression and sleep disorders.
The realm of happiness research is full of surprises. According to Statistics Canada, Sudbury — once considered a reasonable facsimile of the moon — was ranked the happiest community in Canada in 2015, while Vancouver — for all its natural blessings — was the unhappiest.
Still, if men and women aspire above all to happiness, we do seem perennially intrigued — and frequently inspired, when it comes to art — by its opposites.
Frank McCourt said in Angela’s Ashes, a chronicle of his impoverished Irish youth, that “the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.” Leo Tolstoy famously opened Anna Karenina with the observation that all happy families are monotonously alike, but, perking up, “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
And let’s face it. Anguish gets you something soul-stirring, like Adele. Happy gets you Pharrell Williams.
What could account for Ontarians’ rosy outlook on life?
A deeper dive into the poll numbers suggests multiple reasons why most of the province is in high spirits as the new year arrives. From renewed optimism about federal politics to an innate ability to look on the bright side of life, here are five possible factors behind Ontario’s collective good mood.
The October election of Justin Trudeau may have boosted Ontarians’ spirits, and not just because of his promise to return “sunny ways” to Parliament Hill. According to John Helliwell, an editor of the World Happiness Report, research shows people are happier when they have a government that they believe reflects their values. “This notion of shared social norms is very important for feelings of quality of life,” he said. In Ontario, nearly 45 per cent voted for Trudeau’s Liberals.
Happiness is local
Although the poll found that 54 per cent believe the world is a more dangerous place than it was a year ago, the mounting global turmoil Ontarians perceived didn’t prevent most from reporting they were happy. This supports the theory that, like politics, all happiness is local. “What really matters is what life is like on the streets, in your workplaces, in your communities,” said Helliwell.
People in northern and southwestern Ontario were most likely to report they were extremely happy, while respondents within the 416 area code were among the least likely to say they were satisfied with life. This could be explained by a 2010 study by the Centre for the Study of Living Standards; it found the most important factor accounting for variations in happiness in regions across Canada was the sense of a belonging to a community, which was more prevalent in small cities and rural areas.
The glee of gettin’ it on
The same percentage of people who said they were very happy or extremely happy also said they were satisfied with their sex lives, suggesting a strong correlation between sex and happiness. But that doesn’t mean Ontarians are wearing themselves out between the sheets. A 2015 University of Toronto study found that, for people in relationships, having sex once a week makes them happy, but any more than that has no effect on well-being.
Born this way?
It could be that most Ontarians are just naturally happy. U.S. researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky has estimated that all the factors we generally associate with happiness — money, health, a supportive marriage, lack of trauma — account for no more than 15 per cent of the variation in happiness between people. More significant is that people who are fulfilled deal with life “in ways that seem to maintain or even promote their happiness,” she wrote, while the miserable react “in ways that seem to reinforce their unhappiness or negative self-views.”
— Ben Spurr