For the International Day of Happiness, we spoke with Chris Barrington-Leigh whose research considers the social, psychological, and economic implications of happiness and well-being

Monday, March 20 is the United Nations International Day of Happiness. Founded in 2012, it is an opportunity to celebrate and reflect upon the importance of happiness and well-being in our lives, and work towards the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which include eradicating poverty, reducing inequality and protecting our planet.

We spoke to Chris Barrington-Leigh, Associate Professor in the Institute for Health and Social Policy and the Bieler School of Environment, whose research considers the social, psychological, and economic implications of happiness and well-being. Happy International Day of Happiness to all!

How does your research engage with the topic of happiness?

The core of what people call the ‘economics of happiness,’ is to get at how good life is through a deceptively simple approach: to ask people ‘how satisfied are you with your life these days on a scale of 0 to 10?’ Then, as researchers, we take those data in the surveys and use statistical techniques to understand differences and changes in people’s life satisfaction. That tells us what makes for happy individuals, happy communities, happy societies, happy countries. Nowadays we have millions of respondents, coming from 150 countries which are surveyed every year, and in even more detail in a number of those countries. In Canada, for instance, we ask about 90,000 people per year.

Tell us about your involvement with the World Happiness Report, whose 11th issue was published on March 20.

Last year I wrote Chapter 3 of the report, but this year I’ve only been involved a little, and only behind the scenes. The most prominent chapter each year is Chapter 2, which has the famous ranking of countries based on the average answer to this life evaluation question. Each year there is analysis of changes, trends in levels of satisfaction in countries around the world, and various chapters on analyzing the many issues related not just to how happy people are, but understanding policies which improve people’s lives. Globally, measures of negative affects are going up: people are feeling more worried and anxious and sad than they used to in a way that we can see, very significantly, even over over those 11 years of the Happiness Report.

What are the causes of rise in negative affect?

Chris Barrington-Leigh Photo credits: Owen Egan

To generalize about the global trend in life satisfaction takes a bit more care, because if weighted by population, it’s heavily influenced by a couple of large countries, China and India: those two countries have been trending in different directions, with India declining strongly for a number of years.

As for why people are feeling more worry and anxiety, we can speculate about things like eco-anxiety, but also just increased polarization. Just the pace of change is entirely unprecedented. It seems to be of an order that we haven’t evolved for: we’re supposed to learn how to interact and optimize our behavior within our environment in our formative years, and then the environment is somewhat stable during the rest of our productive and reproducing life.

Nowadays, some aspects of the environment are changing. Every ten years, five years, two years, and we have to relearn how to do things. Almost the definition of anxiety is lack of ability to predict the future.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected global happiness?

COVID had conflicting effects, and some of the changes that we’re imposing on ourselves did actually make life better. It turns out that COVID brought out the pro-social behavior in people quite broadly around the world. People participated more in helping others, during the pandemic, and we know from all the research in this field that pro-social behavior, as well as all kinds of other dimensions of our social interactions, are some of the strongest predictors of high life satisfaction responses in these surveys. There was a positive side to feeling like we were in something together, helping each other.

What is the United Nations International Day of Happiness?

The [then]-Prime Minister of Bhutan [Jigme Thinley] gets the credit for bringing this to the UN in 2012, and to all of us. Bhutan had led rhetorically in the idea that life is not about maximizing the amount of exchange that we do, nor the amount of consumption that we carry out. It’s about some other things.

So, the International Day of Happiness is about reflecting on two things and maybe those reflect the two sides of the academic literature to do with happiness. One is the big picture: How should we be crafting our society? What kind of policies should we be pursuing in order to make life better for everybody? And the other is more traditionally the domain of the psychologists than economists. What can we do, which is maybe not obvious, intuitive or habitual, that makes our own lives better as individuals?

How can we be happier?

The research largely can be summed up by saying that we should be spending a little bit more attention and time on social interactions, on the strength of social interconnections and institutions, and assuring that people have trust as well as things like dignity and the feeling of of being able to contribute.

If you say you want to make your day better than yesterday, what should you do? We actually know a lot about this, though we don’t necessarily teach it to everybody. The value for your well-being, your happiness, of going for a walk, of taking three minutes to write down some things you’re grateful for, of saying something nice to your colleague next door or to your neighbor, to reaching out and doing something that is positive  for an other person, will actually make you feel better –  all of these kinds of things can make your own life better.

It really runs the gamut from how we interact with our spouse, to building a positive work environment, to planning our day, all the way to how should governments be spending the next one billion dollars, and what should we be trying to achieve internationally?”

What is Canada doing on the policy front regarding happiness?

Just a couple of years ago the Federal Government launched something called the Quality of Life Framework. The principle and the ambition is really large. It has something like life satisfaction at the center, but then a dashboard of indicators around that, relating to the things that we think are most important for supporting good lives. Associated with those are metrics that government agencies like Statistics Canada can track at the national level, but also in disaggregated ways, for communities. It also has a couple of lenses – one of them is about equity and and distributions, and another is about sustainability.

Its structure is as modern as any government’s around the world, and forward-thinking in how to implement some of the evidence based on well-being into a framework which governments can be accountable to, and guided by in their policy-making and their budgeting. There’s considerable investment across the agencies at the Federal level in reconfiguring things towards this framework.

Would you like to talk about Mindful March and the various actions one can take to be happier?

It’s an Action for Happiness calendar, which is up outside my door. On March 15, the advice for Mindful March was to “Stop. Breathe. Notice. Repeat regularly.” They have little snippets of advice which is on the self help side. You’ve heard these things, but we don’t live our lives taking heed of them very much. That advice is just an example of how we have a lot more control over our mood, over our mental framing than we might realize. That’s something I teach students in the Bieler School course ENVR 201, though I talk a fair bit about the big picture of life evaluation, and policy, and of course, how it relates to sustainability.

How are sustainability and well-being linked?

What’s really important to me about this whole field is not just making lives better for people, or for the people who are currently experiencing the impacts of policies, because everybody is also focused nowadays on what actions now mean for people in the far future, and indeed for non-people that that might like to have a say in our policies, or where we take our planet.

The fortuitous truth that we’ve learned from the economics of happiness is that there’s so much opportunity for improving lives through means which are non-material. It’s possible for us to meet  our ecological exigencies and achieve our environmental objectives, at the same time as ensuring that life gets better for everyone continuously. That is a message which is extremely rare, has always been rare in the ecological discourse which is welfare versus environment, trade-offs between now and the future.

Our social interactions are key to our wellbeing: if we put more attention there, if we build our institutions and set up incentives in ways which give due attention to those things and prioritize them, then we know quantitatively how much life could be better. There are so many non-cognitive skills that we could be teaching in school, keep teaching throughout the life course: how to have a good marriage, how to be a good parent, how to face retirement, how to be a good friend or manager, leadership skills, all of this stuff can be taught across all different domains of our lives.