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.

COUNTRY HUMAN DEVELOPMENT INDEX (2015) CORRUPTION PERCEPTIONS INDEX (2016) WORLD COMPETITIVENESS SCOREBOARD (2016) GLOBAL PEACE INDEX (2016) AVERAGE
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.

COUNTRY HUMAN DEVELOPMENT INDEX (2015) CORRUPTION PERCEPTIONS INDEX (2016) WORLD COMPETITIVENESS SCOREBOARD (2016) GLOBAL PEACE INDEX (2016) “WEAKEST LINK”
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.

Does politics give people the blues?

A clever cartoon in The Economist, depicting how young people seem to feel about politics. (Click for source.)

A clever cartoon in The Economist, depicting how young people seem to feel about politics. (Click for source.)

During the 2012 U.S. presidential election campaign, one YouTube video that went viral showed four year old Abigael Evans crying as she tells her mother, “I’m tired of Bronco Bamma and Mitt Romney”. The video was still getting views in 2015, when a commenter left a message on the site telling Abigael not to feel bad, as politics could make grown-ups cry as well.

Both she and the commenter were far from alone. A mid-May Economist article noted that young people are so turned off by politics that to even discuss such topics in a social setting is “deemed distasteful” and that it “kills the mood”.

Within a couple of weeks, I stumbled across further information about why that might be while reading Measuring Happiness: The Economics of Well-Being, the English translation of a book written by German authors Joachim Weimann, Andreas Knabe and Ronnie Schöb.* In Chapter 7, they discuss the results of an experiment carried out in a 2009 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index study in which one random sample of Americans were asked to rate their satisfaction with life, while another random sample were first asked about their political views and then about their satisfaction with life:

Beginning January 9, 2009, half of the respondents were asked political questions as usual, whereas the other half were no longer asked any political questions but were asked about their life satisfaction right away. For the latter group, the average life satisfaction skyrocketed immediately after January 9, indicating very strong context effects. (pp. 95-96)

The source of this information was a 2012 paper by Angus Deaton of the Center for Health and Well-Being at Princeton University, who noted that:

People appear to dislike politics and politicians so much that prompting them to think about them has a very large downward effect on their assessment of their own lives . . . [T]he effect of asking the political questions on well-being is only a little less than the effect of someone becoming unemployed, so that to get the same effect on average well-being, three-quarters of the population would have to lose their jobs.

Three months later, another change was made to insert a buffer between the political and life-satisfaction questions for all respondents. Immediately, this showed up as an increase in how well people rated their overall life satisfaction compared to the answers they gave when there was no buffer. As Deaton observed, the jump in reported life satisfaction was equivalent to the expected effects of “a more than doubling of per capita GDP”.

While this says something about the risk that one set of questions in a survey could accidentally influence how people respond to the questions that follow, it also says something about why Canadians and others around the world are tuning out on politics: if having politics on their mind makes them feel worse about life, and not thinking about it makes them feel better, the sensible thing to do is to give politics no more attention that necessary.

Politicians who wish to make the societies they govern happier places to live, and to keep the dreaded it’s-time-for-a-change sentiment at bay until a later election, might find that their best bet is to simply stay out of their constituents’ faces. And as for the large numbers of politically disengaged people, about which there has been much hand-wringing in recent years, the best policy might be to simply leave them in peace.

* – Available at the Millennium Library in Winnipeg at 306 WEI 2015.

The Good Life

A Statistics Canada study released Monday on how Canadians assess their satisfaction with life in general produced what appeared to be, on the surface, a middling finding for Winnipeg, whose citizens rated their life satisfaction 7.9 out of 10 on average, slightly below the national average. The highest scores were in Saguenay, Trois-Rivières and St. John’s (average rating: 8.2 out of 10), and the lowest scores were in Toronto, Windsor and Vancouver (7.8 out of 10).

Yet in the bigger picture, Winnipeg was only in the lower-middle of a very narrow spread, in which the average score given in the highest and lowest ranked cities only differed by four-tenths of a point.

In terms of the percentage of residents who rated their life satisfaction as an “8 out of 10” or better, Winnipeg’s 67 percent was at the lower end of a similarly narrow 66-to-73 percent range that 26 of the 33 metro areas were part of.

The more interesting part of the Statistics Canada report was the discussion of what makes people more likely to feel contented with their lives. A regression analysis, focused on how closely related several personal factors were to respondents’ feelings of well-being, showed that people were most likely to be satisfied with their life if:

  • They were not unemployed: Statistics Canada’s analysts found this had a “strongly negative” effect on life satisfaction.
  • They could enjoy the company of others: Single, separated, divorced or widowed people expressed lower average life satisfaction. Those who knew their neighbours and felt a sense of connection to their community tended to be more satisfied with their lives.
  • They were healthy: Statistics Canada found that “[i]ndividuals rating their health as ‘excellent’ have life satisfaction scores a full point higher than those rating their health as ‘good’, and almost three points higher than those rating their health as ‘poor’.”
  • They were making a sufficient income: The biggest gap in life satisfaction was between households with incomes of less than $30,000 annually and those in the $30,000 to $59,999 range. While average life satisfaction tended to increase as one got into the higher income levels, the gaps between income categories were not as large.

Thus, there is something to the old saying that “the best social program is a job”, which some Winnipeggers have difficulty obtaining because of low education or literacy, difficulties with arranging child care or transportation, or because of the bureaucratic nightmare associated with getting foreign degrees, diplomas and work experience recognized in Canada.

But for those who are working yet looking for a little more happiness nevertheless, the best solution might be a gym membership — preferably at a facility with a shared social area, such as a hot tub or sauna — which offers the ability to get fit and to meet others at the same time.

 

Related posts on this subject:

“Social tolerance, freedom of choice and faith among keys to happiness, say researchers” (May 10, 2009)

“Six resolutions that could help make your New Year a happier one” (Dec. 27, 2010)

“How the Scandinavians (and Swiss) got to be so ‘on the ball’ — and how we can be, too” (Jan. 12, 2014)

How the Scandinavians (and Swiss) got to be so “on the ball” — and how we can be, too

Or a very satisfied land, anyway.

Or a very satisfied land, anyway.

One thing I found fascinating about overhearing British conversations during my visit to the U.K. in April 2013 was how it all ranged from the absolutely sublime to the highly sophisticated, often with just the right amount of snark thrown in for good measure.

One such conversation, overheard while walking just ahead of two City financial types on the south bank of the Thames concerned how impressed one of them was with how efficiently everything seems to work in the Scandinavian countries. After talking about everything from health care to the transportation systems, he summed it all up with, “The Scandinavians are always so fucking on-the-ball about everything!”

He might have been on to something there. Of the top 10 countries in the 2012 Human Development Index, two were Scandinavian: Norway at #1 and Sweden at #7, with Denmark being not too far behind at #15. (Finland, while Nordic, is technically not a Scandinavian country as Finns are historically, linguistically and culturally more closely related to the Estonians to their south, and even to the Hungarians, than to their neighbours to the west.) The Scandinavians are also perennial strong performers in the Global Peace Index, the World Competitiveness Scoreboard, the Corruption Perceptions Index and The Economist‘s annual ranking of the world’s best countries for a child to be born into.

One should also mention the Swiss as having mastered the art of running a country as a well-oiled machine (aside from the occasional accusation of racial intolerance), as the small Alpine country routinely finishes in the Top 10 of all of the indices listed above.

Now add a new honour for these countries.

For years, governments and the bodies that advise them on public policy, such as the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), have been accused of putting economic indicators ahead of basic quality of life concerns. So, the OECD has started tracking overall quality of life among its member-states, by adding a Better Life Index table of indicators to its statistical portal, under the “Social Protection and Well-being” section.

Included in the Better Life Index is a Life Satisfaction score for each member-state, based on the average score given when residents are asked to rate their quality of life on a scale of zero to 10. While Canada ranks well at 7.4, placing our country in a tie with Austria and Finland, the top rankings were dominated by Switzerland (7.8), Norway (7.7), Iceland and Sweden (both 7.6) and Denmark and the Netherlands (both 7.5). (Mexico’s 7.3 is admittedly strange.)

Average life satisfaction score by country. Click to enlarge. (Source: OECD)

Average life satisfaction score by country. Click to enlarge. (Source: OECD)

How does a country position itself closer to a perfect, if elusive, “10 out of 10” rating? A regression analysis, showing how much of a country’s outcome in the Life Satisfaction score can be explained by each of the other variables in the Better Life Index, suggests that the easy availability of employment for all has a strong effect on perceived quality of life, with half of the difference between countries being explained by the employment rate, and nearly 40 percent of the difference being explained by the long-term unemployment rate.

Curiously, how the public perceives the quality of their local water appears to be closely related to how satisfied they are with their lives, suggesting that water quality can be a tell-tale sign of how well or poorly run a city, country, province or state is.

Percentage of difference between countries' life satisfaction scores that can be explained by performance in selected areas. Click to enlarge. (Based on OECD core countries' data.)

Percentage of difference between countries’ life satisfaction scores that can be explained by performance in selected areas. Click to enlarge. (Based on OECD core countries’ data.)

As first noted in a 2010 post, health and household finances once again appear to be important factors in human life satisfaction. How healthy people felt explained 38 percent of the difference in overall life satisfaction scores between countries, while personal earnings and household disposable income each explained about a third of the differences. Living in less crowded accommodations, at least in terms of number of rooms per person, appeared to also play a role in boosting quality of life, as did the availability of all basic household facilities.

Interestingly, household net financial wealth appeared to be less important than personal earnings and disposable income in boosting life satisfaction.

In the wider community, having a strong support network — as measured by the question, “If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?” — appeared to make life more satisfactory. Yet other measures of civic engagement such as voter turnout, amount of leisure time or consultation on rule-making appeared to be less important to overall life satisfaction.

Perhaps unexpectedly, four factors appeared to have virtually no impact on overall life satisfaction: the country’s homicide rate, job security beyond a six-month time span, the cost of housing, and the country’s assault rate — each explaining less than one percent of the difference between countries in overall life satisfaction.

Out of curiosity, I also compared the OECD core countries’ life satisfaction scores to two favourite variables of mine: each country’s performance in the Corruption Perceptions Index and the percentage of seats in the lower house of parliament held by women. Sure enough, the perceived openness and honesty of government explained about 45 percent of the difference between countries in terms of how citizens rate their quality of life, while the percentage of seats held by women explained about 36 percent of the difference.

This suggests that running a cleaner, more open and more predictable administration is one of the best things a government can do to boost citizens’ quality of life, and that voting in a different demographic can be just as important for bringing about change as voting in a different party.

Lifestyle can’t be ignored in bid to cut losses to other provinces

It is a question that has vexed Manitoba for years: How do we reverse the situation where more people move out of Manitoba for other parts of Canada than move in?

It’s a question that comes up practically every year when the interprovincial migration numbers come out. According to the Manitoba Bureau of Statistics, Manitoba has lost more people than it gained from interprovincial migration in 39 of the past 41 years.

The only exception was in 1982-84, when Manitoba and Saskatchewan were the least severely impacted provinces in a deep recession that saw unemployment soar past 10 percent simultaneously in all eight other provinces.

The latest figures from the Bureau show that 2012-13 is not likely to be much different, with the 6,994 who moved into the province from other parts of Canada in the first half of 2012 being offset by the 9,125 who moved out — a net loss of 2,131.

It would be wrong to portray this as a stampede for the exit: the net loss represents less than one-fifth of one percent of the province’s 2011 population, and is more than offset by arriving immigrants.

It’s also a far cry from the worst years — 1978-80 — when the province was not just losing an average of 235 people per week to other provinces, but actually depopulating.

Nevertheless, the annual news stories about Manitobans leaving for other provinces do serve a useful purpose by offering an opportunity to think about what makes a province or a city an interesting place to move to.

In 2011, this blog identified several factors that appear to pull people toward some cities and repel them from others:

  • Jobs: Cities with a good job market — low unemployment rates and large business, financial, construction and scientific sectors — tend to be more attractive to domestic migrants. Manufacturing towns tend to be distinctly unattractive.
  • Location and Climate: Cities closer to the coasts tend to be more attractive than inland cities, perhaps due to a milder climate and a more scenic setting
  • Lifestyle: Cities where larger percentages of commuters walk or ride a bike to work appear to be more attractive than car-dependent cities, all other things being equal. Cities with high self-reported stress levels are more likely to lose people to other provinces than lower-stress cities.

There is also the U.S. Census Bureau’s research, showing that family reasons was the second most important reason, after employment, for Americans moving across state lines in 2010-11. This is likely a factor in Canada as well, both being vast countries with major centres spaced hundreds of miles apart.

More importantly, those most likely to take up the challenge of moving to a new province are not representative of the population as a whole. In 2004, Ross Finnie of Queen’s University looked at 13 years of data on people who moved between provinces between 1982 and 1995, and noticed some patterns.

  • The smaller a province’s population, the more likely people were to move to another one, likely due to the size of the local labour market.
  • Younger adults are the most likely to move, as age, marriage and children in due course become strong incentives to stay put.
  • Unemployment and reliance on social assistance are also strong incentives to move.
  • Small-town and rural Canadians are less likely to move to another province than city-dwellers are.

So far, this gives us a good idea of what prompts people to look elsewhere. The pull is strongest when they need to find work and they have the freedom to move without having to worry about spouses, children or parents.

The pull is particularly strong in smaller provinces, where opportunities are more limited. If possible, they would prefer to go to a place that offers a more pleasant lifestyle and climate.

Now, what can be done to give Manitoba the greater pull it needs to turn those net losses in the annual interprovincial migration figures into net gains?

There’s not much we can do about the climate. Climate just isn’t a strong selling point anywhere where the average daily high over the course of the year is a cool 8 °C (46 °F) and the average daily low is a chilly -3 °C (27 °F).

Nor is there much we can do about family reasons for moving.

But governments can help job creation as best they can, by providing a well-educated population, honest, open and transparent government, supportive tax policies, and by cultivating political stability by being predictable and by consulting as widely as possible on major policy changes before putting them into law.

In fact, the job picture works in Manitoba’s favour right now, with the province’s five percent unemployment rate in September 2012 being the country’s third-lowest after Alberta (4.4%) and Saskatchewan (4.7%), and well below the 7.4 percent national average.

But what about lifestyle?

Some aspects of the Manitoba lifestyle have been much-touted, such as Winnipeg’s proximity to “cottage country” and the province’s less-hurried way of life. But these don’t seem to match up well with what many non-Manitobans are looking for.

No doubt, it would be interesting to do a focus group with people who have moved to or from Manitoba to get a better sense of what draws them across provincial lines — but that would be well beyond this blog’s budget.

So let’s enlist some help from a site called SperlingViews.

There are hundreds of sites on the web that allow people to write reviews of their favourite restaurants, travel destinations, movies or businesses. SperlingViews allows people to write reviews of the cities they live in.

Regrettably, SperlingViews only covers the United States, and thus has no reviews from this side of the border. Yet, we can get a rough idea of what people might say about Winnipeg if they had the chance by looking at the reviews written about Des Moines, Ia. and Omaha, Nebr., both within 1,000 kilometres (621 miles) of Winnipeg, and similar to Winnipeg in size.

For this exercise, I specifically sought out those reviews that appeared to be written by those who had also experienced living in another city and were thus more likely to see things from an outsider’s perspective.

Comments have been cleaned up a bit for readability.

The Positives

Inexpensive

  • I used to live in Park Slope in Brooklyn, have been in DSM since 2003 now and I love it here. I pay in mortgage and for a 2011 vehicle what I paid there in rent for a studio appt.
  • I know that the price of homes is very affordable in comparison to other major cities. Also, the cost of living is good.
  • The cost of living is relatively low compared to many other cities.

Short Commutes

  • I have a short commute to work.
  • Unlike a bigger city you can get from one side of the city to the other in no more than 20-30 minutes.

Easygoing, Family-Friendly Way of Life

  • Iowa may not be the most exciting place to live, but it’s easy to live here.
  • You can be happy here — but remember that the overall pace of life is more laid-back, less frantic, and more traditional.
  • [J]ust big enough to have most of everything you would want, and small enough to still maintain that sense of community.
  • [P]eople are more genuine and honest
  • I love to travel and experience many different places, but as far as raising a family and settling down, I want to be in the Midwest.
  • There is a lot to be said for the pace of life there. It may be more family oriented… I’d rather my kids had been reared there.
  • It’s pretty peaceful and quiet here.
  • People here are so nice and the pace is relaxed and you just don’t see the stress that you find in most cities.

The Negatives

Limited Cultural and Nightlife Scene

  • Having lived in multiple Major cities in North America (Canada and the U.S.A.) I’d rank Des Moines as a 2, no more than 3 for Culture, Arts, Theatre, Events and Night Life. However it is trying to improve.
  • This city appeals more for family oriented people. Not too much for singles, but most people are nice.
  • For young, unmarried people, there is not much to do. This is a great place to raise a family, but not so good for younger people.
  • If you are single and want 365-day access to every “single-friendly” event possible, then Des Moines won’t work.
  • There is not as much for a single person to do, I agree, except socialize/party.
  • The zoo is nice, the Old Market can be fun, and they have a few events like the College World Series, concerts, and theatre shows every now and then. Outside of those things, not much else.
  • Occasional good concert comes through town now and again not a whole lot else going on.
  • [W]e are too young in spirit to go quietly into the night of typical Midwestern pastimes such as scrap-booking, watching sports, eating, etc.
  • It’s not a terrible place by any means, but there’s just not enough to do.
  • [E]veryone loves eating and watching the boob tube to pass the time. Obesity is a rampant problem here.

Getting Around Town

  • Public Transportation is a JOKE, the majority of the bus routes shut down after 7:30 AM, return for approx 2 hours in the evening, and then you are on your own.
  • A poor bus system, tons of gridlock on the side streets, too few expressways, pot holes, pot holes pot holes!
  • Drivers often view pedestrians and cyclists as a nuisance and often cruelly display their displeasure by blaring on horns inappropriately, cutting you very close as they drive by, etc.

Climate/Insects

  • Living in temperatures below 0C (32F) can be very frustrating. Des Moines is a nice city, but I’m planning to move back to Florida. Too cold.
  • My only personal dislike is the humidity of the hot summer months…
  • The climate is horrible and inconsistent. One day it could be 85 and 90% humidity and the next 65, no humidity. The winters are harsh with terrible winds and a lot of snow.
  • The summers are unbearable and the winters are unbearable.
  • [W]e have a temperature fluctuation of 150 degrees [Fahrenheit] throughout the year.
  • The bugs are terrible here too (hornets the size of your thumb, tons of wasps and creepy spiders too), and prepare to be eaten alive by mosquitos and gnats.
  • The weather is unpredictable.
  • Cold in the winter, hot and humid in the summer.

Limited Career Options

  • A few industries dominate this town. (It is not Los Angeles with EVERY kind of industry.)
  • Job opportunities are limited to only a few industries and are not well paying positions.
  • Sure 5% unemployment sounds good, but the jobs don’t pay enough to make a decent living on.

Insularity/Clannishness

  • Very hard to meet people as many people are insular and very close with their cliques from high school.
  • It is really, really difficult to make friends here. Most people really keep to themselves and are wrapped up in their own home lives and the groups that they’ve been with since they were born pretty much.
  • People here tend to ascribe to a “herd mentality” and would not think of bucking convention.
  • The town is catered to about 30 people that are millionaires and are able to use the things like Qwest Center, the pork-spending bridge, the unnecessary baseball stadium or one of the other frivolous things that gets built here.

Though these comments originate from the U.S., could they just as easily apply to Winnipeg? Many would say so.

As with climate and family issues, many of these factors are difficult to fix through public policy. Some things, like the climate, we can really do nothing about.

But if we seriously want to see more people move into Manitoba than move out to other provinces, we do have to pay attention to lifestyle issues in the province’s largest city. This includes:

  • Building a better nightlife scene.Winnipeg lacks a default, year-round place to go to see and be seen, aside from The Forks during operating hours. We are pretty much a town where dinner is served at 6 p.m. and bedtime is at a sensibly early 10:30 or 11 p.m. Progress is likely to be made through the development of the Sports, Hospitality and Entertainment District (SHED), but how much progress is yet to be seen.
  • Continuing to work to make Winnipeg the kind of place where those who want to can get some exercise as part of their daily commute or going about their daily errands. In fact, the first thing you notice upon returning from a city where walking or cycling is a key feature of daily life is how devoid of life most of Winnipeg’s neighbourhoods are. The Winnipeg lifestyle is not necessarily conducive to keeping healthy. (And, yes, crime reduction also has to be a part of this. Fear of crime does keep people off the streets.)
  • Reducing the level of insularity. This requires a culture change that extends beyond what public policy can allow for. As discussed before on this blog, and reinforced by comments seen and heard elsewhere, the province’s “Friendly Manitoba” moniker tends to obscure the fact that Winnipeg is not the easiest place for outsiders to fit in — Winnipeg is more “nice” than “friendly”, and this is a big small town where middle-aged people still hang out with their high school friends, limiting social opportunities for newcomers. Perhaps the influx of immigrants in recent years will force change through a composition effect, but perhaps Winnipeggers also need to pay more attention to how the city looks and feels through a newcomer’s eyes.

If we can do some self-improvement in these areas, emphasize the city’s positives such as its low cost of living, short commutes and easygoing Midwesterness, and stay competitive in job creation, then perhaps there is hope of someday turning the population losses to other provinces into handsome gains.

Audience Participation Time: Make up your own list of Winnipeg’s or even your own home town pros and cons in the comments section. After all, if no one speaks up, people will tend to assume that everything is just fine.

Five simple rules for running a great country

Happy Canada Day!

Every year, thousands of people from around the world flock to Canada in search of the good life. It’s easy to see why:

  • Transparency International ranked Canada as the world’s 9th most corruption-free nation in 2008, in a tie with Australia. (Denmark, Sweden and New Zealand were tied as the least corrupt.)
  • Canada was ranked as the 8th most peaceful country to live in this year by the Global Peace Index. (New Zealand was the most peaceful.)

What makes the difference between a great place to live, like Canada, and the countries that many people flee from in order to live here?

A bit of number-crunching — a little regression analysis looking at the percentage of the population in 22 countries who ranked their overall life satisfaction at “8 out of 10” or higher, and what other known variables seemed to push that number up — came up with what I’m calling the Five Simple Rules for Running a Great Country.

1. Give people a real voice in how their country is run between elections: I’m not suggesting plebiscites and referendums here, which are weak forms of consultation at best and manipulation of the public by politicians at worst, but actually giving people the opportunity to speak, explain and be heard.  Holding public hearings on legislation is one way. Keeping politicians accessible and accountable through freedom of the press, Freedom of Information laws and through the activities of non-governmental organizations are other ways.

2. Make job satisfaction a priority: A full-time worker spends 30 percent or more of one’s waking hours every week on the job, so how can job satisfaction not have an effect on overall life satisfaction? Give people the tools they need to get a good job, such as lifelong education. Get rid of things that stand in the way of helping people improve their working lives, whether these things be payroll taxes, overly restrictive non-compete agreements, rigid labour laws or reliance on employer-subsidized health insurance. (Yes, I’m looking across the southern border on that last point.)

3. Fight corruption: Corruption hurts economic growth, causes governments to get their priorities screwed up and generally makes people resentful about how their country is run. Give citizens the means by which to blow the whistle if they witness corruption — even if it makes the politicians’ jobs tougher in the short term. Bring in campaign finance reform, whistle-blower protection and fair election legislation.

4. Give people a sense of choice and control over their lives: The more control people feel over their own fate, the more likely they are to be satisfied with their lives. This can be in the form of giving people options to get out of an abusive relationship and encouraging people to upgrade their education. People can also be given greater control over their lives by being given the opportunity to speak directly to legislators and regulators on issues that concern them.

5. Aim for a highly educated population: Think about the parts of your city where you would feel safest walking after dark. Quite often, these will be the parts of your city with the highest concentrations of healthy, well-educated people. Education has been demonstrated to make a huge difference in peoples’ lives by steering them away from poor health and poverty, and toward productive jobs and comfortable living standards. If education isn’t a government’s most important portfolio, it should be.

Any country that can do those five things is well on its way to being a great place to live.

Social tolerance, freedom of choice and faith among keys to happiness, say researchers

If you’ve ever been a university student, it’s easy to develop an aversion to academic journals. Because of the meticulous standards required  for publication — everything has to be carefully worded and backed up by evidence — these articles are not as “punchy” as the articles you’d typically see in a newspaper or magazine.

It’s too bad it has to be that way. Sometimes these journal articles contain interesting bits of information that don’t make the news.

In 2008, four academics from three universities in the U.S. and Europe combined forces in a quest to find out why some people are happier with their lives than others.

To do this, they looked at how people answered a standard question about their happiness with life in 52 countries around the world, as well as how they answered other questions about their lives.

Some of their more notable findings:

1. Economic development — such as rising incomes — plays a role in boosting happiness. However, money was not everything. Three other things that go hand-in-hand with a happier life:

  • Social tolerance (“living in a tolerant social environment is conducive to happiness for everyone”)
  • Religious involvement (which “provides a sense of predictability and security” according to the authors)
  • Democracy (“the citizens of democracies tend to be happier than those of authoritarian societies”)

2. The biggest increase in happiness can be found among those who move out of poverty and into what some might call “the middle class”. But once people reached the middle class, moving up into wealth had little effect.

3. Freedom of choice — the ability to shape one’s own destiny — also tends to make people happier. Yet, the researchers also found that freedom of choice is tied to the three points discussed above.

  • Those who are hard up for money or up to their eyeballs in debt often have fewer choices in life than those who are financially secure.
  • Those who live in democracies tend to feel that they have more choices than those who live in more dictatorial countries.
  • Those who live in socially tolerant countries are more likely to feel in control of their destiny than those who live in less tolerant places.

The last two points are backed up by the fact that people who live in countries with low levels of corruption and where men and women are treated as equals are more likely to say that they’re happy than those who don’t.

Another interesting point that the researchers uncovered: The “good old days” might not have been as good as some people think.

They uncovered this when they looked at archived data showing how happy Americans were with their lives, dating back to 1946.

From 1946 — when Americans were still euphoric about the end of World War II one year earlier — there was a modest (but significant) decline in their happiness that continued until 1979. The trend bottomed out that year, with American happiness showing steady, modest improvements from 1980 through to at least 2006.

The steepest increases in happiness in recent years, however, have been in India, Ireland, Mexico, Puerto Rico and South Korea.

Argentina, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, South Africa, Spain, and Sweden have also been on the right track according to the research.

The countries that have been on the wrong track: Austria, Belgium, the U.K., and western Germany.

Based on these findings, what can governments do to make people happier? (These conclusions are mine, not theirs.)

  • Focus on getting people out of poverty, and on preventing the middle class from falling into poverty.
  • Embrace and promote social tolerance; no good comes from making people feel marginalized for being different.
  • Don’t devalue the positive effect that religion can have on peoples’ lives (and I write this as an agnostic!) Create a climate where people of all theological persuasions can feel at ease.
  • Don’t tolerate corruption, and foster a culture of openness. People have a right to know what their government is up to, and to have access to decision makers without having to pay $1,000 per plate for the privilege.

Want to read the whole journal article? You can find it here:

Development, Freedom, and Rising Happiness: A Global Perspective (1981–2007) by Ronald Inglehart, Roberto Foa, Christopher Peterson and Christian Welzel.