Sad City

September 2, 2008

I’s been nearly a year since the bad news about Vancouver was broadcast to the world. The CBC picked it up. So did newspapers across the country. A groundbreaking study found that, despite our glorious mountains and ocean, our mild weather, our good health, our Olympic future, and all the livability accolades, Vancouverites are just not as happy as people in St. John, or St. John’s, or Winnipeg. The news was enough to wipe the smug grin from any world-class mug.

Mayoral hopeful Peter Ladner can’t remember when he heard the news, but he remembers who he called to seek an explanation: University of British Columbia professor emeritus John Helliwell, who is not only one of the world’s authorities on the so-called economics of happiness, but one of the study’s authors.

Helliwell—now there’s a happy man. The first time most people encounter him, he’s standing onstage, leading a hundred or so strangers in a rendition of what he calls “The Social Capital Theme Song.” I saw him pull it off with a crowd from the Vancouver Board of Trade, just about the time that our city’s bad news came out. He was beaming beneath a mop of greying hair, squinting through thick glasses at a room full of suits, waving his arms, singing, “The more we get together, together, together!” It would have been discomfiting, really, had the crowd not sung along. But they did. They raised their voices in a joyous noise. “The more we get together, the happier we’ll be!”

Raffi—that’s who Helliwell invokes when rallying troops behind his theories on the economics of happiness. The children’s song really does explain key findings from the emerging research on what Helliwell calls “subjective well-being.” It also offers clues to Vancouver’s comparatively low rating—and how we might climb up the happy scale.

So what does it take to make a city happy? Why aren’t mountain views and a strong economy enough? In a town that looks to real-estate schemes for fulfillment, is it possible to build our way to happiness? To answer these questions, I hooked up with the Subjective Well-being Club, a collective of happiness-obsessed economists, psychologists, and educators at the University of British Columbia. Helliwell is the club’s éminence grise.

You’ll be forgiven for being skeptical about their line of research. Happiness has been derided by cynics and appropriated by the self-help crowd. It feels too soft and squishy for scientific enquiry. It’s hard to define. It’s subjective. It’s been considered so difficult to measure that, since the nineteenth century, economists simply use purchasing power as a proxy for it.

But in the last few decades, psychologists and neuroscientists have found it’s easier to measure happiness than economists once thought. Just ask people. Get them to rate how satisfied they are with life on a scale of 1 to 10. It turns out that answers correspond quite closely to levels of electrical activity in the parts of the brain associated with good feelings. High scorers smile more and sleep better. They’re healthier. And Helliwell has found that reported happiness figures correlate with national suicide rates and other measures of well-being.

What makes people happy? Mainly, it turns out, family and social connections. Meaningful work. Community. Health.

Freedom. Wealth is part of the mix, but general happiness has flat-lined even as national income in the Western world has skyrocketed since the end of the Second World War.

Self-reported happiness reflects all the varied ingredients of a good life. That’s why the study on Canadian cities was so annoying. None of Canada’s biggest, richest cities were among the happiest. Toronto and Edmonton were near the back of the pack. Vancouver trailed behind them. And for all its boom and bluster, Calgary brought up the rear. The happy charts were topped by Canada’s small Nowheresville cities: St. John, New Brunswick, whooped us all. How is it that the places that attract us, the cities that cost us so much to call home, are emotional tar pits?

CHRIS BARRINGTON-LEIGH, the doctoral student in economics who led the urban happiness study, is a cautious man. He says the difference between Canadian cities was small: a point or two on a 10-point scale. And he frets that the data he gleaned from the 2003 census was too mushy. But he’s certain that urban form influences well-being. So I invited him on a field trip to Vancouver’s latest purported happiness factory, the condo showroom at Millennium Water on Southeast False Creek. The Olympic Village project sits on some of the most expensive real estate in the country, and promises all Vancouver’s aspirational hallmarks. The showroom banners belt them out: Parks. Water. Technology. Transportation. Luxury. A world address! All the things marketers think we want. What better place to examine Vancouver’s happiness deficit?

While salespeople fluttered among quartzite countertops and “eco-wood” cabinets, Barrington-Leigh huddled on a bench with his brow furrowed and his laptop aglow. The graphs on his screen offered two remarkable insights: first, there is a clear, inverse relationship between civic wealth and happiness in Canada. The richer the city, the less happy its citizens claimed to be. Second, the most powerful correlate of happiness is trust. The more people said they trusted their neighbours, the more satisfied they were with life in general.

When it comes to influencing happiness, trust beats money hands down, Barrington-Leigh explained, because trust is a marker for a web of social connections and relationships that fuel good feelings. Most people overestimate the benefits of status and wealth—and quartzite countertops—and underestimate the power of these social connections. This is the happiness Catch-22: Rich cities offer high-status jobs and wealth, something most of us are inclined to pursue. But the harder we work, the more we end up sacrificing time with friends, family, and neighbours.

We were interrupted by a Millennium Water marketer. She wanted to show us a scale model of the new neighbourhood. “Look,” she said. “World-class views. Gorgeous.” She’s right, and what’s more, pretty views can actually be good for your health. Prison inmates get sick less often when their cells face farmland or trees. (And a rather gruesome study reported that the simple act of viewing a nature scene helped bronchoscopy patients reduce the agony of having a tube shoved down their throats into their lungs.)

“ So will a condo on False Creek help make me happy?” I asked.

“ Of course!” she said.

“ Maybe not, if you have to work longer hours to pay for it.” Barrington-Leigh said. His numbers show that more expensive homes just don’t boost happiness. They reveal a few other wrinkles, too. Despite the gorgeous views, people who live in mid- and high-rise towers tend to be less happy than those who live in houses and townhouses. They also happen to be less trusting. Even trailer-home residents rate their happiness higher than do people in towers, which suggests that there’s something about living in the sky that brings people down.

Nobody is really sure what that is. It could be that towers don’t offer the easy, over-the-fence banter that neighbours on the ground share. One-bedroom apartments have an obvious isolating effect on their residents. Sociologists have suggested that even elevators can discourage interaction by forcing people into uncomfortably close quarters. We’ve been programmed since youth not to bother people in enclosed spaces.

The lesson here is that packing people together doesn’t necessarily bring us closer (and that fancy countertops and shiny new appliances are no guarantee of happiness). Which is a worry, given Vancouver’s position on the population curve. We’re a young city, a mongrel city, and our many races and cultures get along much better than social theorists think they should. But Metro Vancouver is expected to grow by almost a million people in the next three decades. If the city’s EcoDensity Charter is any indication, we’re going to be packing them into basement suites, coach houses, and, yes, more towers. How do we ensure that density doesn’t actually isolate us? How do we turn a more crowded city into a machine for happiness rather than hostility?

LAST YEAR I FLEW to Bogotá, Colombia, to see the results of what may be the world’s first urban happiness intervention. Yes, that Bogotá, home to kidnappers, narco-revolutionaries, and some 80,000 new civil-war refugees every year. Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor who turned Bogotá into a laboratory for theories of well-being, took me for a bike ride. He was convinced that status was a key ingredient of happiness. (Research shows he was right: a steep status gradient—reflected in, say, a wide income gap—can be toxic. People who feel low on the societal ladder get sick more often, even if they enjoy the same access to health care as the rich. Low-status bureaucrats get stressed out and die young. So do low-status monkeys.)

A die-hard capitalist, Peñalosa felt he couldn’t do much to narrow the gap between rich and poor, but at least he could redesign the city so the poor didn’t feel left out of civic life. “In a good city people do not feel inferior,” he explained. “Citizens should not feel excluded. The more time people spend in places open to everyone, the better a city is.”

Peñalosa cancelled plans for a new network of highways and poured his budget into a vast array of parks, libraries, pedestrian “freeways,” and bike routes. He handed prime road space over to a rapid bus network. He forced neighbours to tear down the fences they had erected on public land, and installed tens of thousands of bollards to free up sidewalks from parked cars. All this so the city’s poor would feel more like equals.

By the end of Peñalosa’s term, in 2001, feelings of optimism in the city had shot up. There were fewer car accidents. Amazingly, the murder rate fell by 40 percent. When we cruised across town through a network of linear parks, it no longer felt like the Bogotá of infamy. It felt easy. People smiled and waved as we passed. I was robbed only once, and gently at that.

IF CHANGES IN urban form can cheer up blighted Bogotá, surely a city like Vancouver can also benefit from a design intervention. City councillor Suzanne Anton picked up the torch after witnessing one of Helliwell’s happiness barn-burners down at Robson Square a couple of years ago. On a rainy day this spring, Anton led me up and down the south end of Fraser Street, extolling the virtues of the walkable village, the public plaza. “If we’re asking neighbourhoods to accept more people,” she said, “then the city has got to create more public space to bring them together. These spaces don’t need to be big. They just need to be positioned right smack in the middle of the community.”

Anton described a recurring image she has of old fogies drinking coffee in a cobbled square in Europe. It was a strange narrative, coming from a woman who had recently championed big-box-store proposals on Marine Drive. But Anton swore she had seen the light. Having squeezed a directive for more “gathering places” into the EcoDensity Charter, she’s got proof of her conversion to happy.

At 45th and Fraser, Anton paused to rattle the chain-link fence outside the adult education centre. That yard could be her imagined plaza; its rooms could be used for gatherings, she said. “The idea that school buildings should be used just for school has got to go! These spaces can help connect people.”

Helliwell’s own EcoDensity pitch combines seniors’ centres with child daycare. Get the generations together. Let them help each other. After all, it’s not just getting together that makes us happy. It’s how we get together. Public space means nothing without human interactions; the more generous, the better.

Elizabeth Dunn, a member of UBC’s Subjective Well-being Club and a rising star of happiness research, has found that money can indeed make people happy—but only if they give it away. Dunn and her colleagues designed an experiment to test whether altruism makes us feel good.

She and her colleagues designed an experiment to prove that altruism fosters happiness. They asked students to rate their level of happiness, then they handed each student an envelope containing either $5 or $20. Half were told to spend the cash on themselves; the other half were told to give the money to charity or buy a gift for someone else. When they were surveyed again the same evening, students who had spent money on other people were happier than those who had spent on themselves.

For Helliwell, the conclusion is obvious. To fuel happiness, we need to create more opportunities for people to be generous. He experiments constantly with this theme. He buys pitchers of beer for strangers at UBC’s student pub. He loves snowstorms and transit strikes, because they give him a chance to stop and offer people rides. All this generosity makes him feel good, as he knew it would. The studies predicted it.

That insight leaves Helliwell of two minds about the 2010 Winter Olympics. If, as promised, the event fortifies Vancouver’s global brand and drives up the cost of living in the city, it could actually corrode general well-being. But if it creates a culture of volunteerism, then Helliwell predicts a legacy of good cheer.

IF TRUST, EQUITY, and generosity are key elements of the good life, Vancouver’s in the midst of its first great experiment in designing happiness: the Woodward’s project. The rebirth of the Downtown Eastside block that once symbolized civic decrepitude may offer a new model of connected urbanity. A glass condo tower is rising in the 100 block of West Cordova. Designer fixtures and mountain views are on their way, but so is family housing next door. On West Hastings there will be subsidized housing for singles, the rough-edged folk most Vancouverites try to ignore. Simon Fraser University’s new School for Contemporary Arts will set up shop. So will a clutch of nonprofits.
The project represents a combined effort by the city, the province, residents, activists, and developers to heal the neighbourhood. You could call it an exercise in altruistic urbanism. None of it could have happened without the big bucks from condo sales. That should warm the hearts of condo buyers, suggests Helliwell. But he insists that their engagement with poor neighbours will determine if the project will meet its happy potential.

This is where the competing values of status and engagement play out in design. The condos, family housing, and singles housing will have three separate lobbies. It’s what each user group wanted, architect Gregory Henriquez explained. If studies on status identification are correct, this lobby segregation may not be so bad for poor residents: it will spare them the sting of judgment every time they step in their elevator.

Meanwhile, the great getting-together is supposed to happen on the public plaza and atrium in the heart of the block. Henriquez gave the atrium a train-station-like roof so that the neighbourhood’s poor, who are regularly removed from the nearby Tinseltown Mall, can hang out, even in winter. “It will be a symbolic hub, a mixing bowl, a place where all can come together,” Henriquez said as we scrambled around stacked rebar and plywood forms on the site.

But will condo owners and arts students share space with the unfashionable poor? Or will the unwashed be ushered away by security guards? If happiness means not feeling inferior, will the poor shy away from the intimacy of the plaza altogether? Helliwell’s insistence that we all get together presupposes that we all have something to share. Can we bridge the city’s status gap?

“ We live in Babel; we are all so different,” said Henriquez. “But in the Downtown Eastside, people tell me that their fundamental desire is not for money but for a feeling of connection and community. People crave that. It’s common to all humans. So in our public spaces, people are going to have to look past the surface. They are going to have to give each other a chance.”

Perhaps the greatest challenge will be for the rich and the poor to get over their fear of one another. “You don’t get trust and maintain trust,” Helliwell told me, “without reaching out to other people, taking risks.” It’s as true of Point Grey as it is of the Downtown Eastside. Cities can bring us together, but that’s where the real experiment begins.

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