by Geoff Olson

vanAre you happy? Now there’s a loaded question. But for many Vancouverites it’s not so much a conversation starter as a Zen koan.

Vancouver has been a frequent winner and runner-up in The Economist’s annual rankings of the world’s “most liveable cities.”
It’s also renowned as a place where strangers avoid conversing and newcomers go friendless for months. Vancouver’s residents are least satisfied with their lives than residents of any other metropolitan areas in Canada, according to a new study from Statistics Canada. Toronto came in a close second in dissatisfaction.

On a 0-10 scale of “very dissatisfied” to “very satisfied,” Vancouver netted the lowest score in surveys, at 7.808. The highest score went to Saguenay, Quebec, at 8.245. But considering this dinky spread at the high end of the satisfaction scale, is this ratcheting “First World problems” into newsworthy predicaments? For comparison’s sake, I’d like to see stats from Baltimore, Maryland and Pyongyang, North Korea.

That said, I recently visited Montreal — which netted 7.976 in the StatsCan study — and the city’s residents seemed quite a bit friendlier than Vancouverites in my thoroughly biased, unscientific encounters.The apparent friendliness may have some bearing on reported levels of satisfaction.

That rubbery, subjective state, “happiness” remains notoriously difficult to pin down. In her 2009 book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, U.S. journalist Barbara Ehrenreich interviewed a leader in the field of positive psychology, Professor Martin Seligman. The author inquired about Seligman’s “happiness equation,” a simple sum with a few variables. Her question would have been a no-brainer for any first-year physics student: “What are the units of measurement?” She received no satisfactory answer.

In any case, Canadians’ popular ideas of pleasure and reward have long been tangled up with those of our neighbours; in particular, “the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence as “inalienable rights” granted by the Creator to all American citizens.

For decades, economists, business gurus, self-help authors, motivational speakers have sold the “pursuit of happiness” as relentless self-advancement serving the common good. Yet the classical economist’s “self-interested maximizer of utility” — otherwise known as “Homo economicus” — is more like a notepad doodle of a psychopath than a fleshed-out portrait of a healthy human being.

The reimagining of self as shopper has not delivered on the promise of happiness, because personal well-being is ultimately dependent on the well-being of others, with factors that lie outside the market’s range. As for Vancouver itself, a city populated by the winners and losers in a global Monopoly game — with a shrinking demographic on the sidelines — is not conducive to collective happiness, however we define the h-word.

“I think a lot of the unhappiness [in Vancouver] comes from the lack of affordability, how much one has to work to pay that cost of living, and how the city is under siege by development,” writes a local urban expert by email. This scenically spectacular city has fashioned itself into a Mecca for tourism and the global real estate investment market. In the process it has also become a colder, more alienating place, with shrinking habitation options for local cultural creatives who could truly make it “world class.”

“I do not write this in a spirit of sourness or personal disappointment of any kind, nor do I have any romantic attachment to suffering as a source of insight or virtue,” writes journalist Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-Sided.

“I would like to see more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness and, better yet, joy. In my own vision of utopia, there is not only more comfort, and security for everyone — better jobs, health care, and so forth — there are also more parties, festivities, and opportunities for dancing in the streets. Once our basic material needs are met — in my utopia, anyway — life becomes a perpetual celebration in which everyone has a talent to contribute. But we cannot levitate ourselves into that blessed condition by wishing it. We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.”

 The Vancouver Courier, May 1


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