Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday October 10, 2020
Canadians are rich, but this Thanksgiving, our well-being is trickier to measure
As we huddle in our homes, separated from friends and family by a pernicious virus, economics offers a measure of one thing Canadians have to be thankful for.
Gross domestic product, or GDP for short, a reckoning of things we make and services we sell, tells us Canada is a rich country in a poor world.
Depending on how you calculate it (there are subtle differences in methodology), as of last year, Canada as a whole was about as rich as Brazil or Russia.
But what makes Canadians really, really rich is that unlike Russia and Brazil, Canada’s enormous wealth is shared among a relatively small population. We have a high GDP per capita.
As you sit there this Thanksgiving weekend — grumbling about the politician or irresponsible age group to blame for trapping you in your home on this traditionally convivial holiday — it is easy to conclude that living in a rich country isn’t enough.
That is certainly the conclusion of Bryan Smale, director of the Canadian Index of Wellbeing, a project currently located at Ontario’s University of Waterloo.
As he and his team continue their efforts to find out what Canadians really care about, their research has shown that being rich — under what their system classifies as “living standards” — is only a single one of eight crucial indicators, including health, leisure and community engagement, that are most likely to make us thankful. And for many of those indicators, COVID-19 has not been kind.
“The things that are emerging as being the most significant buffers [for well-being] are the degree to which people can continue their participation in a variety of leisure activities and their perceived access to those things, both of which have been compromised right now,” Smale said.
His research shows that going out into nature or a city park can relieve a sense of social isolation, as can interacting with strangers — even at a distance.
A well-known principle called the Easterlin Paradox, discovered by a U.S. economist, shows that after a certain point — somewhere near the official Canadian poverty level — we and the countries we live in don’t get happier as we get richer.
One thing GDP does not do is measure happiness. Despite supporting GDP, Skuterud said it has other flaws.
“The biggest problem is that it ignores the distribution of economic wealth within a population,” he said.
The Canadian Index of Wellbeing is in no position to supersede GDP and has no plans to try, but for people like Lisa Wolff, policy and research director at UNICEF Canada who uses the CIW tools, the effects of wealth distribution are obvious and inescapable. (CBC)