Harry, Meghan, and the importance of freedom for finding happiness

There have been few royal couples in the world quite like the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, better known to the world as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. When the two married in 2018, many recognized that it was a union that would have been unthinkable when Queen Elizabeth II began her reign in 1952 — that of a British prince to a divorced, American-born actor of mixed African-American and Caucasian ancestry.

Yet even in 2018, the idea that the two would step down as “working royals” to live first in Canada and shortly thereafter the United States as half-royals and half-celebrities seemed far-fetched. But they did.

On Sunday, Mar. 7, the couple appeared on prime-time North American television with interviewer Oprah Winfrey to discuss the circumstances of their departure from royal life.

I was one of the many millions who watched that interview. While there were certainly many who were quick to criticize the couple on the grounds of not upholding the duty-focused traditions of the British royal family, there were many others who felt sympathy for their choice — and I was one of them.

My sympathy arose from my longtime interest in the predictors of happiness; that is, the choices that people can make that increase their probability of enjoying a happy life. I know from experience that one of the strongest predictors of a person’s happiness is how much freedom of choice and control they have over their circumstances.

To illustrate this, let’s consider the World Values Survey, a worldwide research project meant to better understand the differences between the nations. In the survey’s latest 2017-2020 version, they asked 1,794 British adults* hundreds of questions, two of which were: Taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, quite happy, not very happy or not at all happy? and Please use this scale where 1 means “none at all” and 10 means “a great deal” to indicate how much freedom of choice and control you feel you have over the way your life turns out.

Among the 960 respondents who saw themselves having a strong sense of choice and control over their lives, based on an “8” or higher on that ten-point scale, 54 percent said they were very happy with their lives, and another 44 percent said they were quite happy. Only two percent said they were unhappy with their lives.

Among the 752 respondents who answered the freedom question in the “4” to “7” range, only 27 percent described themselves as very happy with their lives, though 64 percent were at least quite happy.

Among the 72 respondents who rated their freedom of choice and control as “3” or lower, just 18 percent described themselves as very happy, while 40 percent said they were quite happy. The largest number, however — 44 percent — said they were not very or not at all happy.

The relationship between freedom and happiness is well documented. A 2014 article published in the Psychology of Well-Being journal noted that “[p]sychological freedom is most strongly related to happiness in rich nations,” and that this sense of freedom helped explain why happiness levels tended to be higher in Finland than in France.

By “psychological freedom”, authors Gaël Brulé and Ruut Veenhoven of Erasmus University in the Netherlands meant:

Psychological freedom is a lack of inner restrictions for seizing opportunities to choose. There are several such inhibitions and we do have data on the prevalence of some of the inhibitions in nations.

A first inner constraint is low self esteem. If you do not feel good about yourself, you will be less apt to take control . . . A second psychological restraint is acquiescence, that is, a tendency to agree with what other people say. This trait is measured using ‘yes-saying’ to survey questions and is commonly used as an indicator of response style. However, a strong tendency to agree to any question can also be seen as a ‘lack of guts’, i.e. a lack of psychological freedom.

Why are Finns more psychologically free than the French? They go on to explain:

Socialization naturally comes to mind. Socialization is deeply embedded in a culture and involves several aspects. The first is parental rearing. When asked about what are the important values to teach a child, French parents, for instance, tend to be keener to answer “obedience” than their Finnish counterparts, 35% in France versus 28% in Finland. Finnish parents tend to value much more “independence”, 57% in Finland versus 24% in France. We can imagine this has an influence on the psychological freedom for the inhabitants of rich countries.

They also note that teaching styles say a great deal about psychological freedom:

In horizontal teaching, children are encouraged to work in groups and self-motivate, in the vertical teaching lecturing and note taking is favoured. France has the most vertical teaching system whereas the Finnish system appears among the most horizontal ones.

And finally that whether a society has historically been organized in a hierarchical or egalitarian manner also matters:

Another possible explanation for the disparity in psychological freedom is religion. Protestantism dominates in Finland and Catholicism in France. Several studies have shown that Catholicism tends to foster hierarchical relations. The church is hierarchical in itself with its many different levels, pope, bishops, priests, monks, etc., that is led from the top down and where there is little room for interpretation. Protestantism, in contrast, sees less need for intermediaries between the believer and God and leaves the believer more freedom. Thus, the Catholic’s “top-down approach” will create less psychological freedom than the Protestant’s “bottom-up approach”. This viewpoint is explored in detail in Brulé and Veenhoven ([2012]).

From this, it’s easy to understand why life as members of a royal family might have turned into an unbearably unhappy existence for Harry and Meghan, prompting them to break away while at a still relatively young age.

It’s a life that tends to be cruel to those who express their own opinions or who have strong personalities of their own. Monarchy as an institution tends to value obedience over independence, as we’ve learned from the consequences of Harry and Meghan’s own assertion of independence. And the monarchy is all about hierarchy, right down to the first-born getting first rights to the throne, the strict protocols about bowing or curtsying to the Queen, and the famous rule of not speaking to royalty until they have spoken to you first.

So let Harry and Meghan enjoy their freedom. There’s a good chance they will have happier lives for it. Let’s set the rest of the world’s royals free, too.

And remember this: one of the best happiness-inducing gifts you can bestow on others is to allow and even encourage their freedom. Set them free from family or cultural expectations that might limit their options, from fear of gossip or “keeping up appearances”, from the trained habit of people-pleasing. And if you’re needing a little more happiness yourself, look for opportunities in your life to break free.

* – I’m using Britain here as it was the country that the Sussexes departed from. Totals do not sum to 1,794 due to a small number of respondents who said “don’t know” or who declined to respond.

Contented Norway, Stressed-Out America: A tale of two countries, and what their governments spend the people’s money on

Nearly five years ago, The Economist published a front cover featuring a scruffy-looking Viking, accompanied by the words: “The Next Supermodel: Why the world should look at the Nordic countries.” While the world’s bigger countries and current and former superpowers struggled with their problems, the Nordic countries — Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland — seemed to have their act together, winning praise over and over again for their healthy economies, relatively low crime rates and high standards of living.

Over the intervening five years, not much has changed. The Nordics continue to be strong performers in all the areas that matter. When this blog looked at countries’ performance across four indices last May — the Human Development Index, the Corruption Perceptions Index, the World Competitiveness Scoreboard and the Global Peace Index — the Nordics constituted at least four of the world’s 10 best countries, with Denmark taking the number-one spot. (Canada ranked either fourth or sixth, depending on whether you ranked each country by its “weakest link” or by its average score.)

Now there’s more good news for the Nordics. John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs of the New York-based Sustainable Development Solutions Network have released their 2017 World Happiness Report, and concluded that Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland were the world’s happiest societies in the 2014-16 period.* They credit Norway’s high ranking on “mutual trust, shared purpose, generosity and good governance”, as well as good management of its oil reserves, and using the proceeds from it to prepare for a better future instead of spending it all as it comes in.

“Mutual trust, shared purpose, generosity and good governance” are not words, however, that would describe 2017 in our neighbour to the south. The United States has had a memorable 2017 for all the wrong reasons — and it showed in its rank. As noted:

The USA is a story of reduced happiness. In 2007 the USA ranked 3rd among the OECD countries; in 2016 it came 19th [Note: this might be a typo — the report’s data tables show the U.S. in 14th place; it was the U.K. that was in 19th place]. The reasons are declining social support and increased corruption . . . and it is these same factors that explain why the Nordic countries do so much better.

The authors particularly singled out the U.S. government’s priorities for criticism. As they bluntly note on page 180:

America’s crisis is, in short, a social crisis, not an economic crisis . . . This American social crisis is widely noted, but it has not translated into public policy. Almost all of the policy discourse in Washington DC centers on naïve attempts to raise the economic growth rate, as if a higher growth rate would somehow heal the deepening divisions and angst in American society. This kind of growth-only agenda is doubly wrong-headed. First, most of the pseudo-elixirs for growth — especially the Republican Party’s beloved nostrum of endless tax cuts and voodoo economics — will only exacerbate America’s social inequalities and feed the distrust that is already tearing society apart. Second, a forthright attack on the real sources of social crisis would have a much larger and more rapid beneficial effect on U.S. happiness.

One could only imagine the authors’ alarm that, having just passed controversial tax reform legislation, there is now talk of targeting America’s already modest social safety net for deep cuts. As the New York Times reported on Dec. 2:

As the tax cut legislation passed by the Senate early Saturday hurtles toward final approval, Republicans are preparing to use the swelling deficits made worse by the package as a rationale to pursue their long-held vision: undoing the entitlements of the New Deal and Great Society, leaving government leaner and the safety net skimpier for millions of Americans.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan and other Republicans are beginning to express their big dreams publicly, vowing that next year they will move on to changes in Medicare and Social Security. President Trump told a Missouri rally last week, “We’re going to go into welfare reform.”

In fact, the core items of the social safety net already constitute a relatively small share of total U.S. local, state and federal government spending. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data show that, in 2015, only 21 percent of total government spending was dedicated to what the OECD classifies as “social protection”; that is, sickness, disability, old age, housing and unemployment support.

This already puts the U.S. toward the bottom of OECD nations in terms of the percentage of local, regional and national government spending on social protection. Indeed, given the low priority their own governments give to their well-being, not to mention other abuses like drawing local electoral boundaries to guarantee one-party rule, why shouldn’t Americans feel bitterly resentful toward their governments?

In Norway, social protection was a significant 40 percent of all government spending in 2015 despite an unemployment rate of just four percent that year and 75 percent of all Norwegians aged 15-64 having a job — one of the highest rates in the world.

That spending paid off, according to a 2017 OECD report on Norway. Not only has it helped provide the sense of well-being that the lack of prompted many Americans to vote for Donald Trump in 2016, but it is something the OECD recommended that Norway leave intact (emphasis mine):

Fiscal reform should not aim to significantly reduce the scope of Norway’s comprehensive welfare programmes and public services. These are integral to its socio-economic model, playing a key role in making economic growth inclusive and keeping well-being high. Given the fiscal rule, this means that taxation will remain high compared with many countries. Consequently, a pro-growth tax mix, strong labour skills and easier regulations for doing business are needed for the business sector to thrive in global markets.

As we end 2017, revolution is in the air as like no other time in the past 50 years, if not the past 100 years. Some look to the hard-left for solutions to the high level of anxiety, some to the hard-right. What the world could really use, though, is a bit of Nordic sense by protecting not jobs, not industries, but people.


* – Canada ranked seventh in the World Happiness Report, just behind Finland and the Netherlands. New Zealand, Australia and Sweden rounded out the top 10.

The stinginess goes on and on and on

“Big changes considered for Ontario workplaces,” said one headline on the CBC News Toronto web site this past February, after it had been revealed that, among other things, Ontario’s provincial government was considering raising the minimum annual holiday required by the province’s Employment Standards legislation from two weeks to three.

As far as annual holidays goes, however, what was ultimately proposed by Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne’s government at the end of May certainly could not be described as “big”. Even to describe the proposed changes as “modest” could be considered an exaggeration.

The Ontario government is indeed proposing to raise minimum annual holidays from two weeks to three weeks. Here’s the catch, however: it only applies to those who have worked for the same employer continuously for at least five years. Anyone with less than five years’ service could still legally be offered only two weeks per year under the proposed change.

“We have fallen behind,” Wynne said as the proposed change was revealed.

“And we don’t really feel like catching up,” she might as well have added.

Even by Canadian standards, Ontario’s “two weeks for the first five years, then three weeks” plan represents an insignificant change. Alberta, B.C., Manitoba and Quebec have all had the same conditions in their employment laws for years, while most other provinces and the federal Labour Code offer a third week after longer periods of service, ranging from three weeks after six years at the federal level to three weeks after 15 years in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Ontario and P.E.I. remain the only provinces without a third-week provision.

Saskatchewan is the only province to have broken the two-week baseline. Their laws provide for three weeks annual holiday to start, rising to four weeks after 10 years.

By international standards, Ontario’s not-so-big change looks even less impressive. In 1970, signatories to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Holidays with Pay Convention each pledged to provide for annual holidays that would be “in no case . . . less than three working weeks for one year of service.” Canada, however, was never among the signatories.

The list of advanced economies offering less than three weeks (or 15 working days) per year is small, and has been shrinking in recent years. The United States provides no legal minimum. Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan each provide for seven days off. Japan and Israel are more or less on par with Canada at 10 to 12 working days. Then, that’s about it, except for a gaggle of smaller or less thoroughly developed economies.

Now, compare that to Australia. Australians first won the right to two weeks annual holiday with the Annual Holidays Act in 1945. This was raised to a three-week minimum — still unheard of in Canada outside of Saskatchewan — in 1963. That country further increased the legal minimum to four weeks in 1974.

Across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand — a country which dislikes being compared to Australia, but I’ll do it here anyway — was a little more restrained. They won two weeks annual leave in 1944, threw in a third week 30 years later, and finally raised their legal minimum to four weeks per year in 2007.

Surely to God a modest boost from two weeks to three weeks annual holiday per year, merely meeting the ILO’s recommended rock-bottom minimum and matching what New Zealanders had from 1974 to 2007, would not make a dent in any province’s economy. It might even provide a very mild stimulus as people used the time to spend money on things that they don’t normally spend money on during the typical work day or weekend. It would be an easy and fairly equitable crowd-pleaser, too.

It was a risk that Kathleen Wynne’s nearly 14-year-old (i.e., geriatric, in political terms) Liberal government could have afforded to take. Instead, they reinforced a penurious status quo, only a little bit more generous than Japan’s legendarily limited allowances — although even Japan has slowly started to come around to the idea of taking holidays in the face of a persistent economic and quality-of-life malaise.

Meanwhile in Canada, the stinginess on annual holiday provisions goes on and on and on.

The World’s Best Countries, 2017 Edition: Denmark, Made Great Again

It has been more than two years since the last time I compared countries across four indices — the Human Development Index, the Corruption Perceptions Index, the World Competitiveness Scoreboard and the Global Peace Index — in search of the world’s best countries. So, I decided that it was time to do so again to see if anyone has moved up, or down, in the world.

This is particularly timely given that the White House is currently occupied by a bizarre new president who has vowed to “make America great again”. Just what does “great” look like? To be a contender, by my standards, a great country needs to provide its citizens with an exceptional quality of life, an honest form of government and judicial dispute resolution, economic opportunity, and protection from harm. Thus, it should rank highly across all four of the indices noted above.

As I did last time, I converted each country’s raw score in each index — not its rank — into a new score showing the country’s proximity to the best performer in that class. Then, I calculated the average score across the four indices

Last time out, Denmark emerged as the world’s best country, followed closely by Switzerland, New Zealand, Finland and Norway. Canada’s average score of 91.6 was good enough for a seventh-place finish, just behind Sweden.

This year, not much has changed. Denmark, Switzerland and New Zealand repeat their first-, second- and third-place finishes, with Sweden and (surprise!) Singapore rounding out the top five — even though Singapore performed relatively weakly in the Global Peace Index. Iceland, Norway and Canada tied for sixth place with a score of 91.5, while Finland and the Netherlands round out the top 10 with another tie at 90.1 each.

Denmark 97.5 100.0 93.6 95.7 96.7
Switzerland 98.9 95.6 100.0 87.0 95.4
New Zealand 96.4 100.0 87.3 92.6 94.1
Sweden 96.2 97.8 94.2 81.6 92.5
Singapore 97.5 93.3 99.6 77.7 92.0
Iceland 97.0 86.7 82.2 100.0 91.5
Norway 100.0 94.4 91.9 79.5 91.5
Canada 96.9 91.1 91.9 85.9 91.5
Finland 94.3 98.9 83.7 83.4 90.1
Netherlands 97.4 92.2 93.2 77.4 90.1
Germany 97.6 90.0 90.4 80.2 89.6
Ireland 97.3 81.1 93.4 83.2 88.8
Australia 98.9 87.8 86.0 81.4 88.5
Austria 94.1 83.3 81.8 93.3 88.1
Japan 95.2 80.0 80.3 85.4 85.2
Belgium 94.4 85.6 82.3 78.0 85.1
United Kingdom 95.8 90.0 85.0 65.1 84.0
United States 96.9 82.2 99.9 55.3 83.6
France 94.5 76.7 74.9 65.2 77.8

What if we calculate each country’s standing a bit differently by looking not at the average, but at the weakest link — the point at which the country deviates the most from the perfect score of 100? In this case, Denmark still remains number-one, with a score of 93.6, followed by New Zealand and Switzerland. Canada, meanwhile, breaks out of its tie with Norway and Iceland for a fourth-place finish.

Denmark 97.5 100.0 93.6 95.7 93.6
New Zealand 96.4 100.0 87.3 92.6 87.3
Switzerland 98.9 95.6 100.0 87.0 87.0
Canada 96.9 91.1 91.9 85.9 85.9
Finland 94.3 98.9 83.7 83.4 83.4
Iceland 97.0 86.7 82.2 100.0 82.2
Austria 94.1 83.3 81.8 93.3 81.8
Sweden 96.2 97.8 94.2 81.6 81.6
Australia 98.9 87.8 86.0 81.4 81.4
Ireland 97.3 81.1 93.4 83.2 81.1
Germany 97.6 90.0 90.4 80.2 80.2
Japan 95.2 80.0 80.3 85.4 80.0
Norway 100.0 94.4 91.9 79.5 79.5
Belgium 94.4 85.6 82.3 78.0 78.0
Singapore 97.5 93.3 99.6 77.7 77.7
Netherlands 97.4 92.2 93.2 77.4 77.4
France 94.5 76.7 74.9 65.2 65.2
United Kingdom 95.8 90.0 85.0 65.1 65.1
United States 96.9 82.2 99.9 55.3 55.3

Improving in one area can help a country improve its performance in all four areas. For example, corruption can take a toll on a people’s well-being, stifle economic growth and spark a desperate struggle for mere survival that can rob a country of its peace. Likewise, improvements in education — a “human development” issue — can reduce tolerance for corruption, open up additional economic opportunities and calm the overall social environment.

Some countries, including Canada, have done a good job in that regard, and have the excellent quality of life to show for it. But for now, the Danes can justifiably pat themselves on the back for a job well done — and grin broadly at how jealous the Swedes, their traditional friendly rivals, will be.

Amazon’s annual list: Canada’s 20 most romantic cities, or its dullest ones?

To garner some publicity ahead of Valentine’s Day, Amazon produced last week its annual list of Canada’s 20 most romantic cities. As in past years, it included some odd picks. Cities like Montreal and Quebec City, known for their character and nightlife, were completely excluded from the list. Yet cities like Grande Prairie, Alta. and Burlington, Ont. — cities which even some locals might hesitate to describe as “romantic” — made the cut.

What gives? There’s a good chance that Amazon’s own methodology inadvertently results in a list of Canada’s dullest cities instead of its most romantic ones. As the online retailer described in its news release, the rankings are based on Amazon’s per capita “sales of romance novels (both print and Kindle editions), romantic comedies, relationship books, jewelry and sexual wellness products.”

Naturally, this would tend to produce a skew toward places where these things are not easily available in the community and must instead be shipped in.

So, if Abbotsford and Grande Prairie aren’t exactly Paris in the Spring, where might love be in the air in Canada? “Romance” is difficult to quantify, and a city’s romance factor can vary greatly between the inner city and the suburbs, so just for fun, let’s have a look at one basic metric: the percentage of the population age 15 and over who are available — that is, single (and not living common-law), separated, divorced or widowed.

Since 43 percent of Canadians aged 15 or older are “available”, one would expect that the areas where this percentage is far higher must have some sort of special appeal — to be the places where love, or at least sex, are in the air.

Fortunately, Statistics Canada allows us to focus on specific neighbourhoods now that they provide demographic statistics by Forward Sortation Area (FSA) — better known to most Canadians as the first three characters of our postal codes.

With that data available, which of Canada’s urban neighbourhoods have the highest concentrations of available people? A Top 10 list, with a few hard-to-explain surprises of its own:

1. Montreal, Que. H2X (Place-des-Arts/Ville Marie): This neighbourhood on the northeast side of downtown Montreal can claim to be the Singles Capital of Canada. Not only are 70 percent of its residents neither married nor in a common-law relationship, it’s one of those rare neighbourhoods in which the majority — 57 percent — are single. Credit at least in part a large university population, with McGill University and UQAM being in close proximity.

2. Vancouver, B.C. V6A (Downtown Eastside [!]/Strathcona): A questionable #2, admittedly. While Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (often abbreviated “DTES”) is somewhat notorious for being one of Canada’s most troubled neighbourhoods, at least the area can claim to have lots of available people, as 70 percent of residents were neither married nor living common-law as of the 2011 census.  Perhaps there’s a Skid Row effect at play here? Nevertheless, between the mountains and the sea, the City of Vancouver is at least a stronger contender than some of Amazon’s picks for “most romantic” status.

3. Saint John, N.B. E2L (City Centre): I’m not too familiar with foggy Saint John, N.B., but for whatever reason, the inner city has a disproportionately high concentration of available people, given that 68 percent are neither married nor living common-law, and nearly one-half are single. The city has become a popular cruise ship stop, so it must have something going for it.

4. Ottawa, Ont. K2P (Centretown/Golden Triangle): The nation’s capital attracts a lot of young people who work long hours for low pay as political staff. So, perhaps it should be no surprise that inner-city Ottawa, within walking distance of Parliament, has one of the nation’s highest densities of available people. Not only are two-thirds (68%) neither married nor in a common-law relationship, but the majority (53%) are single.

5. London, Ont. N6B (City Centre-Woodfield, south/east of Downtown): Another surprise. Unlike its British namesake, London, Ont. has a reputation for being rather dull. But it’s a university town, and that’s perhaps why its inner city has a disproportionately high number of available people (68%) and particularly of singles (48%). This particular area also has a number of high-rises, which in themselves tend to have higher concentrations of single, separated, divorced or widowed households than do neighbourhoods full of detached homes.

6. Toronto, Ont. M5B (Garden District): If you’re looking for nightlife, you can’t go wrong living in Toronto’s highrise-intensive Garden District, which includes Toronto’s busy Yonge St., Massey Hall, the Ed Mirvish Theatre and Ryerson University. That might explain why two-thirds of the area’s residents (67%) are neither married nor common-law, and 55 percent are single.

7. Ottawa, Ont. K1N (Byward Market/Lower Town/Sandy Hill): With the University of Ottawa within its boundaries and Parliament Hill being just a 25-minute walk away, this area of Ottawa, heavy with apartments and condos, can’t help but to have its share of available people. Sixty-one percent are neither married nor common-law, and 51 percent are single.

8. Toronto, Ont. M5T (Chinatown/Kensington Market): Located west of downtown Toronto and made famous by the ‘70s TV show King of Kensington, this area of the country’s biggest city adjacent to Queen’s Park and the University of Toronto is not a bad place to look for love: 66 percent are neither married nor common-law, and 50 percent are single.

9. Halifax, N.S. B3J (City Centre): If you’ve ever been to Halifax, it’s not hard to see how its city centre could be conducive to a bit of romance, with the harbour on one side and the Citadel on the other. A large university population — Dalhousie and Saint Mary’s universities being nearby — help account for the fact that fully 58 percent of the area’s residents are single. Add in the divorced, separated and widowed, and the availability rate rises to 66 percent.

10. Montreal, Que. H2L (Gay Village): Perhaps it should be no surprise that a neighbourhood simply known as the Gay Village has a population that is 66 percent available, including 52 percent single. Located northeast of downtown Montreal, the neighbourhood is close to both UQAM (ostensibly boosting the student population) and to the nightlife, for which Montreal is famous, along Rue Saint-Denis and in the Quartier des Spectacles.

Winnipeg falls just short of the Top 10 list, with R3B — north of Portage from the University of Winnipeg to the Exchange District — being good for a #11 finish, as 65 percent of residents aged 15-plus were neither married nor living common law in 2011, including 45 percent who were single. While this includes some sketchy areas — a moonlight walk along Cumberland Ave. is perhaps not the safest thing to do — the presence of the university and the development of the Exchange District quite likely helps.

At the extreme opposite end of the list, the hunt for love is not likely to be harder than in Ingolf, Ont. P0Y. Not only is the population small — just 63 people — but only 17 percent of residents aged 15 or older are neither married nor living common-law. But if we once again exclude the most thinly populated areas, Canada’s most “settled” neighbourhoods — the bottom five — include:

5. Calgary, Alta. T3L (Tuscany/Scenic Acres): These two outer suburbs in northwest Calgary start off this list, with just 29 percent of those aged 15 or over being single, separated, divorced or widowed. Not much to do for fun out that way, except perhaps to go for a coffee at the Starbucks in the strip mall parking lot.

4. Winnipeg, Man. R3X (Island Lakes/Royalwood): Way out on the edge of town, with virtually nowhere to go for fun locally, this suburban area is Married-With-Children country. Seventy-one percent of the area’s age-15-plus population is either married or living common-law, leaving just 29 percent available.

3. Bedford, N.S. B4B (Bedford/Hammonds Plains): This deeply suburban area on the western outskirts of Halifax offers little to see or do, except perhaps a walk in the woods. Not surprisingly, this has one of the country’s lowest proportions of single, separated, divorced or widowed people — just 28 percent.

2. Whitby, Ont. L1M (Brooklin): Brooklyn, New York might offer a lot for the single, separated, divorced or widowed to do; but Brooklin, Ont. — politically part of the city of Whitby, but physically separated from it by a freeway and open land — certainly does not. Strictly suburban Brooklin doesn’t even have a town centre; just a mall called the Brooklin Towne Centre where you could look for love at the Tim Horton’s, or perhaps at Dollarama. For more excitement, downtown Toronto is just 45 minutes away — by freeway.

1. Calgary, Alta. T3M (Cranston/Auburn Bay): What could be more romantic that the cul-de-sacs of the most far-flung subdivisions of a city defined by sprawl? Just about any other neighbourhood in Canada, really. The Cranston and Auburn Bay neighbourhoods, on Calgary’s southeastern edge, are the most settled of Canada’s urban neighbourhoods: three-quarters of its residents aged 15-plus are married or living common-law, leaving just 26 percent up for grabs.

Sex and the American Voter

Academic writing has a long and proud tradition of being painfully dull and slow to get to the point, but perhaps that’s simply because no one was able to research whether there was a link between how people vote and their sex lives. Until now.

Finally, three researchers from three U.S. universities have successfully navigated the academic minefields of obtaining time and money and overcoming ethical objections to answer such questions we’ve all been dying to know the answer to, such as whether U.S. conservatives or liberals are more likely to make love in the missionary position.

The answer to that question, according to these researchers is: conservatives are more likely to prefer the missionary position. Their article, which appeared online in full-text earlier this week before being pulled behind a paywall, also found that social conservatives tend to have sex for the first time at a later age and to have fewer partners, yet are also more likely to be satisfied with the state of their sex lives.

U.S. liberals, meanwhile are said to be more likely to take part in “adventurous sexual behaviors (e.g., sex toys)”, and in risky behaviours, such as sex with a total stranger.

Fortunately, I was able to screenshot a particularly colourful paragraph from their findings this past week and post it to Twitter for a laugh before the paywall was imposed. Among the more salient bits:

“Those who gave more oral sex or received more oral sex are more conservative on out-group/punishment attitudes (anti-immigration, pro-death penalty, etc.), but more socially liberal (support gay rights, pro-choice, etc.)”


“Those who have more sex with a woman on top are also more conservative on out-group/punishment attitudes, more likely to [have voted] for Romney, but more socially liberal. Those who have more ‘doggy style’ sex are more conservative on out-group/punishment attitudes, but more socially liberal.”


“People who masturbate more are more liberal on all attitude dimension, self-report as liberal, Democrats and [as having voted for] Obama.”


“Those who engage in more S & M [were] more likely to vote for Obama, self-report as liberal and have more liberal social attitudes. People who engage in more hand-to-breast contact [were] more likely to vote for Romney, self-report as conservative, and be more conservative on out-group/punishment and economic attitudes.”


“People who kiss on the mouth more [were] more likely to vote for Romney, self-report as conservative and Republican, and be more conservative on out-group/punishment and economic attitudes.”

After Americans go to the polls Nov. 8 to elect a new president, after what has undeniably been the most wretched and embarrassing presidential race in modern history, a desire to have less politics and more cuddling would be entirely understandable. But let’s just hope those couples where one voted for Trump and the other voted for Clinton can patch up their differences.

“The relationship between sexual preferences and political orientations: Do positions in the bedroom affect positions in the ballot box?” by Peter Hatemi, Charles Crabtree and Rose McDermott will be published in the Personality and Individual Differences journal in Jan. 2017.



The importance of alcohol in community-building

On Dec. 23, Statistics Canada released its latest monthly estimates on how much business the nation’s drinking places were doing. A “drinking place”, as defined by Industry Canada, includes “bars, taverns or drinking places, primarily engaged in preparing and serving alcoholic beverages for immediate consumption”.

Out of pure curiosity, I used Statistics Canada’s CANSIM data portal to calculate each province’s per capita drinking-place receipts for the year from November 2014 through October 2015.

What I found was quite surprising: not only were Manitoba’s drinking-place sales of $24 per capita well below the national $61 average, but we were way down at the bottom of the nine provinces for which data are available. (British Columbia had the nation’s highest per-capita bar spending at $119, followed by Saskatchewan at $106 and Newfoundland and Labrador at $93.)


Per capita receipts reported by "Drinking Places", as defined by Industry Canada, Nov. 2014-Oct. 2015. Statistics Canada data excludes P.E.I. and the northern territories due to small sample sizes.

Per capita receipts reported by “Drinking Places”, as defined by Industry Canada, Nov. 2014-Oct. 2015. Statistics Canada data excludes P.E.I. and the northern territories due to small sample sizes.

Perhaps this should be no surprise. Manitoba started out in the 19th century as a chaotic frontier society, and over-compensated for the problems caused by drunkenness by establishing a liquor bureaucracy that even now retains rather restrictive liquor laws. Add to that a culture that still frowns upon alcohol consumption in the rural south; and the typically North American urban sprawl and car dependency, which necessarily puts limits on the ability of a group of friends to gather for a pint or two of beer on their way home — a limitation that those who can walk or take public transport home need not be so concerned with.

While all this might save Manitobans the inconvenience of loutish after-bar behaviour or of needing to step over vomit on the morning streets that go with the territory in more urban environments, it also raises the question of whether Manitoba’s weak bar and pub culture makes the province socially too closed for its own good.

This possibility goes back to a discussion I had a year or two ago with a Czech expatriate now living here who shared with me the one thing he disliked about life in Manitoba: that it was “a very lonely place”.

He had grown up and lived in a society where the local pub and pizzeria were not just places to eat or drink: they played a critical role in building and maintaining a sense of community — places where the locals gathered to share news, stay connected to old friends, and meet new ones.

Here in Winnipeg, he found that there was a huge void. The neighbourhoods had no natural gathering places, and were dull and lifeless — a collection of commuters who went straight home after work, closed and locked the door, and stayed there until the morning — with no real sense of community. “Nothing but houses,” he lamented.

As unfashionable as it might be to say this in our culture, alcohol has an important role to play in the building of a sense of community.

In her book Watching the English, British social anthropologist Kate Fox highlighted the importance of shared alcohol consumption to linking people together. The better any particular venue fared in what she referred to as “The SAS Test”, the more amenable it was to bringing people together:

“SAS stands for Sociability (by which I mean specifically the acceptability and ease of initiating conversation with strangers), Alcohol (an essential flirting aid among the inhibited English) and Shared-interest (environments in which people have interests in common, or a shared focus – settings likely to have the kinds of props and facilitators that help the English to overcome their social dis-ease).”

At the top of Fox’s list: the pubs for which British communities are famous. Though they only pass two-thirds of the SAS Test for lack of a shared interest, Fox noted that they do allow for informal introductions that make shared-interest finding possible.

Parties and nightclubs – two other areas in which alcohol consumption within moderation is encouraged – also ranked high on Fox’s list. At the bottom of the list: trains, supermarkets and galleries, which Fox described as “no-go areas” for making social connections.

In 2012, University of Pittsburgh researchers also found that moderate alcohol consumption played an important role in widening peoples’ social networks:

“[The researchers] concluded that alcohol stimulates social bonding, increases the amount of time people spend talking to one another, and reduces displays of negative emotions . . . Results showed that alcohol not only increased the frequency of ‘true’ smiles, but also enhanced the coordination of these smiles. In other words, alcohol enhanced the likelihood of ‘golden moments,’ with groups provided alcohol being more likely than those offered nonalcoholic beverages to have all three group members smile simultaneously. Participants in alcohol-drinking groups also likely reported greater social bonding than did the nonalcohol-drinking groups and were more likely to have all three members stay involved in the discussion.”

Such bridge-building between people matters. In 2010, this blog discussed the possibility that, in spite of the famous “Friendly Manitoba” slogan, our community is actually a bit hesitant to let newcomers into our existing, long-established and somewhat closed social circles. But the newcomers keep coming: in 2014, we welcomed more than 16,000 foreign newcomers to our province, and more are on the way.

This vastly increases the number of people living here who are in search of new social contacts to relieve the isolation of starting a new life in a place where, prior to arrival, they knew almost no one – or even no one at all. The constraints that restrict the number of places in Manitoba that pass “the SAS Test” serve to isolate newcomers and long-established residents alike.

In April 2016, Manitobans will venture to the polls to choose the government that will guide the province through the final years of the 2010s. In that election, further reforms to our traditionally strict liquor laws in such a way that will give our communities more places that pass “the SAS test” should be on the agenda. So too should be a discussion about the other choices that keep us atomized and prevent the development of a more meaningful sense of community by inhibiting even moderate alcohol consumption, such as the state of our semi-reliable public transit systems, the difficulties in obtaining taxis and/or shared-ride services, and the community-deadening effects of urban sprawl.

Baby-Face Blues

Departing Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak: In addition to campaign gaffes, did having a "baby face" create doubts about competence, as some academic research suggests?

Departing Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak: In addition to campaign gaffes, did having a “baby face” create doubts about competence, as some academic research suggests?

Whether we the public like it or not, imagery can make or break a political career. The image of U.S. vice-president Richard Nixon sweating during the 1960 presidential debate helped seal his fate in one of the closest campaigns in that country’s history. Twenty-eight years later, the somewhat absurd image of another presidential candidate, Michael Dukakis, grinning while riding around in a tank similarly sank his presidential campaign.

Others were helped by their cultivated images: Canada’s Brian Mulroney and Australia’s Bob Hawke rapidly ascended to the prime ministership of their respective countries, despite neither having had any prior cabinet experience, in no small part because they both fit the image of a prime minister.

In addition to a lacklustre campaign that bounced from controversy to controversy, could Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak’s campaign to become Premier of Ontario — which ended in defeat Thursday as Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals were re-elected to a fourth term with an unexpectedly large majority — been hindered by Hudak’s image?

While Hudak made no visual gaffes akin to federal Tory leader Bob Stanfield fumbling a football during the 1974 campaign or Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day’s ill-advised decision to arrive at a news conference by jet-ski during the 2000 campaign, the 46-year-old Hudak (pictured above) was one of the most noticeably “baby-faced” Canadian politicians to lead a high-profile campaign in recent times.

As three Duke University academics noted in a 2010 U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, having a “baby face” — characterized by a high forehead, relatively large eyes and small nose and a round face and chin — is not always an asset for someone trying to reach the top:

“…[The perception of a person being competent] is negatively and significantly correlated with baby-facedness, with a correlation of 25.3%, which is significant at a 1% level. Essentially, the subjects are classifying CEOs with mature-faced attributes as competent . . . Our results are concerning particularly in the light of our findings that there is no relationship between competent looks of the CEO and firm performance.”

This finding came five years after an article by Leslie Zebrowitz of Brandeis University and Joann Montepare of Emerson College was published in Science magazine, with very similar conclusions:

“Babyfaced individuals within various demographic groups are perceived as less competent, whether by their own or another group. Its impact can be seen even for famous politicians: When images of former U.S. presidents Reagan and Kennedy were morphed to increase babyfacedness, their perceived dominance, strength and cunning decreased significantly.”

There is, alas, good news for the baby-faced people of the world: although often associated at first glance with the baby-like qualities of being “submissive, naive and weak”, as Zebrowitz and Montepare note, having a baby-face can be an asset when the ability to convey warmth and honesty is critical. They also draw attention to other research by Princeton University’s Alexander Todorov, showing that “more babyfaced men tend to be slightly more intelligent . . . more highly educated, contrary to impressions of their naïveté, and more assertive and more likely to earn military awards, contrary to impressions of their submissiveness and weakness.”

When things go from bad to worse, there are even indications that baby-faced defendants in court are better at defending themselves against charges of intentional wrongdoing — but more likely to suffer a judge’s wrath when accused of negligence.

None of this is a defence of or an excuse for a lousy campaign; but the tendency for a more mature face to be favoured when competence is a campaign issue is something to be kept in mind by all political observers and news junkies.

A short history of the Moral Menace

Normally one thinks of coffee shops as places where mild-mannered people, male and female alike, gather to chat or to stare at their Macs over coffee and perhaps a pastry; not as hotbeds of sex and immorality.

That, at least, tends to be the reality in Canada, which is why a recent article in the Kuwait Times might strike many of us here in North America as being inadvertently hilarious:

Three Kuwaiti ministers could be interrogated by parliament if mixed coffee shops are not closed within one month, a lawmaker has warned. Reports in Kuwait City pointed to the presence of young women and men in these coffee shops to smoke shisha.

“We will not hesitate to grill the competent ministers if these immoral coffee shops are not shut down within one month,” MP Askar Al- Enezi said, quoted by local media.

“We urge the ministers of interior, commerce and municipality to take action against these cafes all over Kuwait, but particularly in the Jahra area,” he said, referring to his constituency north east of the capital Kuwait City.

The lawmaker issued his warning as he took part in a rally on Saturday alongside other MPs, religious figures and residents in Jahra to push for action against the coffee shops accused of promoting vice and depravation.

“Such coffee shops have no room in our society as they violate our very traditions and customs as well as the spirit of the Constitution which stipulates the state’s responsibility in maintaining the values of the family considered as the core of the community and in protecting the youth,” the lawmaker said.

MP Sultan Al Laghisem and Mohammad Tana said that they would use all parliamentary means to ensure the end to the “moral menace” to Jahra by the coffee shops. “There is a deep corruption of morals at these suspicious places and we will do our utmost, including quizzing, to fight it,” Mohammad Tana said, quoted by Al-Jareeda daily on Sunday.

On my next visit to a local Starbucks after reading this article, I scanned the scene carefully for any sign of vice, depravation or corruption of morals.

Other than a woman in a blue coat who looked suspiciously like a cheating dieter by becoming suddenly shifty-eyed when ordering her pumpkin scone, there were no signs that that particular Starbucks was in any way a “suspicious place”.

But that’s not to say that North America has always been free of relatively innocuous behaviours being treated as moral menaces. Some of these menaces include:

  • Children’s stories and nursery rhymes. The Mar. 14, 1925 Reading Eagle reported on public comments made in New York by Dr. Winifred Sackville Stoner, the president of the National Education Forum, accusing Mother Goose of promoting “cruelty, rudeness, selfishness, murder, immorality, cowardice, bad grammar” and a variety of other evils “with the possible exception of arson”. Stoner also criticized Little Jack Horner for promoting bad manners, Rock-a-By-Baby for terrifying children, and Old King Cole for promoting an anti-Prohibition message.
  • Tinky Winky the Teletubby. Televangelist Rev. Jerry Falwell raised a few eyebrows in 1999 when he accused Tinky Winky, a character on Teletubbies, a U.K.-produced children’s program syndicated to the U.S., of promoting homosexuality. ”He is purple — the gay-pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle — the gay-pride symbol,” Falwell wrote in his organization’s National Liberty Journal magazine. The company distributing the show to American audiences denied the accusations.
  • Watching movies on a Sunday. The audience at a showing of Cranes are Flying at Winnipeg’s Uptown Theatre received an unwelcome surprise one Sunday in November, 1959 as the Winnipeg Police morality squad raided the premises to investigate “possible violations of the Lord’s Day Act”, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix reported on Nov. 23, 1959. The newspaper reported that Winnipeg Police chief Robert Taft was considering whether a report should be sent to provincial attorney-general Sterling Lyon for further action; and noted that several other sports teams in Winnipeg had been given warnings by police for playing sports on a Sunday. Movies could at that time be shown for a voluntary contribution on a Sunday, but not for a set admission price.
  • Dancing. In 1917, Toronto police cracked down on the perceived problem of — wait for it — young people going to dances to look for a partner. Thus, as the Jan. 31, 1917 edition of the Toronto World reported, “In future, the young women of Toronto who wish to go to a dance hall will have to be escorted there by a young man. Vice versa, the young man will not be admitted without a fair partner.” The crackdown by the Toronto Police morality division came after “complaints of indecorous conduct”, and came with a promise to station police officers at the front doors of Toronto’s dance halls, with orders to arrest “any woman who accosts a man with a view to entering the place.”

Anglosphere’s conservatives march on without the GOP

A mock-up of an "Anglosphere" flag, still in need of a more modern Irish reference. (Click for source.)

A mock-up of an “Anglosphere” flag, still in need of a more modern Irish reference. (Click for source.)

It is perhaps apt that Wikipedia’s map of the Anglosphere makes generous use of the colour blue. Of its six core members, five are or imminently will be governed by right-of-centre administrations: Canada and Britain under their respective Conservative Parties, New Zealand under the National Party, Australia under its incoming (and curiously named) Liberal-National Coalition government, and Ireland under the Fine Gael (“Tribe of the Irish”) party.

The sixth country, the United States, is partially governed by the Democrats who dominate the White House and Senate, and the Republicans who dominate the House of Representatives.

The election of the newest of these governments, Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition in Australia this past Saturday, was observed with keen interest in Canada, despite the precisely 10,008 miles (16,107 kilometres) that separate Ottawa and Canberra, the two countries’ capitals.

During their long spell in opposition from 1993 to 2006, Canadian conservatives turned to their more successful Australian and New Zealander counterparts for advice, especially as the Internet and the falling cost of long-haul travel eliminated the tyranny of distance. The relationship has remained fairly close, as Simon Kent noted today in a Sun Media op-ed:

Abbott and Harper can both claim former Australian Prime Minister John Howard as a mentor, friend and political guide. They are both published authors, with Abbott’s works set on political philosophy whereas Harper’s book on the early history of hockey is set to hit store shelves Nov. 5.

[ . . . ]

With Tony Abbott’s ascent to power there is now a quartet of socially and politically conservative leaders in four of the major English-speaking members of the Commonwealth. Abbott joins U.K. premier David Cameron, Canada’s Stephen Harper and New Zealand’s John Key at the helm of their respective countries at a time when conservative politics seems to be on the rise.

It is a bit of a stretch, however, to describe the four as being of like mind. Kent correctly notes that Abbott, who once trained to become a Catholic priest, is socially conservative, at least at a personal level. Abbott, however, is akin to Harper in his tendency (so far) to focus on economics and to throw his fellow social conservatives no more red meat than absolutely necessary.

Perhaps taking advice from former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke, who once attributed his popularity to the fact that “I don’t exude morality”, Abbott’s party painstakingly avoided topics other than the economy, education, health care, infrastructure and security in its 2013 election platform.

The U.K.’s David Cameron and New Zealand’s John Key, meanwhile, might be typically conservative on economic and security issues, but are less so on social issues. Both of their governments legalized same-sex marriage this year — Britain in July, New Zealand in August — and Key’s government in New Zealand recently passed legislation aiming to regulate rather than prohibit certain drugs.

The policies of “the quartet”, as Kent calls them, stand in sharp contrast to those of the Republican Party in the United States, illustrating a growing separation of mind between American conservatives and their erstwhile Anglosphere allies.

Normally, one would expect the Americans to play a leading role in generating and exporting ideas, given that the Republican Party is by far the Anglosphere’s largest conservative party.

Instead, the Republican Party — long called the Grand Old Party, or GOP for short — has become an absurdly insular and provincial party, almost completely disengaged from the outside world of conservative politics.

Can anyone seriously imagine Stephen Harper, who has a Master’s degree in Economics, suggesting, as one Oklahoma congressman did, that a $9 minimum wage would cause the price of a hamburger to rise to $20?

Or David Cameron calling for a law that would make oral sex illegal, as a Republican candidate for Governor of Virginia has done?

Or John Key, a former U.S.- and Singapore-based Merrill Lynch executive, mulling the idea of putting the New Zealand dollar on the Gold Standard, as the 2012 Republican Party presidential platform suggested for the U.S. dollar — an idea that a writer for The Economist described as “ridiculous, antediluvian, superstitious nonsense“.

In all three cases, such moves would be unthinkable, as their respective parties, whatever their shortcomings, are cognizant like all other parties of the importance of keeping the proponents of flakier ideas, such as those that have emanated from the less-disciplined GOP, in a state of containment.

Thus the small-c conservative parties of the Anglosphere are divided between five smaller ones that periodically play to their base, as all parties do, but are still largely pragmatic in practice, and one big one that seems to eschew reality, risking the future of a country whose successes and failures have impacts that can be felt far beyond its borders.

A global learning tour for U.S. Republican leaders, with stops in Dublin, London, Canberra, Wellington and Ottawa, might well be in order given the success of the smaller parties. But don’t count on it happening soon.