The Happiness Expert

🕔Jan 30, 2007

If you live in Prince George and have ever completed an annual survey asking how the city’s budget should be spent, you’re one of thousands who’ve been studied by one of BC’s most distinguished intellectuals.

And if you’re one of the 2,000 randomly selected Prince George residents who last fall received a mailed survey about the role of art in your life, you can rest assured that your survey responses—assuming you sent them in—are being processed by his analytical machinery right now.

Meet the great big brain who designs and analyzes these studies: Dr. Alex Michalos, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, and Director of the Institute for Social Research and Evaluation, at UNBC.

When he’s not overseeing the design and analysis of surveys in this unique research partnership between UNBC and the city of Prince George, co-editing academic journals, or volunteering time toward civic improvement initiatives, he researches, in various ways, questions that Western scholars have entertained since at least the 8th century BC: What makes us happy? How do we know when we’ve attained “the good life”?

Certainly, questions like these are considered at least part of the time by any reasonably self-aware human being.

For Dr. Michalos, it’s a passion which has spawned almost four decades of methodical inquiry, countless studies, 22 published books, and more than 95 peer-reviewed articles. It’s inspired him to found or co-found six highly successful scholarly journals such as the Journal of Business Ethics, Teaching Business Ethics, Social Indicators Research Journal, and the Journal of Happiness Studies. His quest has won him at least eight prestigious awards of distinction, including, in 2004, the Gold Medal for Achievement in Research from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRCC)—the highest honour they award.

At his elegant Hart Highlands-area home in Prince George, Michalos considers the obvious question: why is he so compelled to uncover how people define happiness? It appears that he’s attained it in his personal life: at 71, he’s happily married to Deborah Poff, UNBC’s Vice President Academic, he’s raised three kids, enjoys high community esteem, sound health and financial security.

“It’s fun,” he says, noting that he’s been captivated by the “elegance and neatness” of numbers since childhood. “I really enjoy looking at what the human race has done with itself for the 2,800 years that we’ve been looking at this.”

Right thing to do

But his preoccupation with “the good life” also springs from deeper sources.

As an avowed atheist with a “social reformer” streak, a deep sense of community and a history of political involvement (he ran for the federal NDP three times—and “got creamed every time,” he laughs), Michalos feels that “quality-of-life” research is just the right thing to do.

His work, he explains, is motivated by a “consequentialist, old-line utilitarian” moral point of view. “It’s the idea that right and wrong can be determined by the consequences of our actions,” he explains. From this standpoint, the most moral course of action would be that which does the greatest good for the most people.

For Michalos, quality-of-life research “unpacks” these ideas. Insomuch as it’s used by individuals and leaders to understand the effects of their actions and policies, it delivers a whole lot of good for the investment.

These days, Michalos is analyzing data from a study which examines the relationship between people’s perceptions of their quality of life and their engagement in the arts. With a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, he’s teamed up with 37 community research partners, 26 Thomson Rivers University researchers, and faculty from UNBC, U of New Brunswick, and University of Waterloo.

Once again, Prince George is his laboratory, along with Kamloops, Nanaimo, Port Moody and the Comox Valley.

The project is called Mapping Quality of Life and the Culture of Small Cities. “This is the biggest study that’s ever been done on the kinds of questions we’re asking,” says Michalos.

The questionnaire that he designed for the study defines “arts” very broadly. Almost 70 activities are included, from pursuits like sculpture, photography, painting and filmmaking to activities such as flower arranging, gourmet cooking and going to the library.

Distributed to 2,000 randomly selected residents in each of these cities in September, the surveys ask residents to identify which of these activities they engage in. Respondents are also asked to indicate what quality-of-life benefits they derive from doing them. These could include self-development, health enhancement, community-building or simply the satisfaction found in “art for art’s sake”—such as dancing for no other reason than because it’s fun.

Completed surveys were returned in November and are now undergoing statistical analysis.

Michalos expects they’ll reveal how creative activities contribute to our quality of life, offering data that will be useful to planners, educators, arts organizations, marketers and the general public.

“Suppose we found a high correlation between singing in a choir and overall life satisfaction…maybe more people would want to sing in a choir,” he speculates. “Maybe we’ll find ways that communities can bond, or for people to feel better about their lives. Maybe we’ll find some good arguments for not cutting out music and arts class in primary schools, and for supporting fine arts programs at UNBC.”

Canadian values

Michalos’s current works-in-progress extend far beyond Prince George.

For example, he’s also co-operating with a Canada-wide team of researchers. With funds from the Ontario-based Atkinson Charitable Foundation, they’re developing a comprehensive method to assess and describe how Canada is doing at realizing key Canadian values.

It will include the usual objective gauges of Canadian wellbeing, such as Gross Domestic Product—the total market value of goods and services produced by a nation’s economy during a specific period of time. But it will also include indicators of quality-of-life dimensions such as community vitality, education, good governance, time balance, and ecological health.

This approach reflects something that permeates Michalos’s huge body of work: an awareness that objective economic indicators simply don’t tell the whole story. “The thing that I try to hammer home is that you have to look at the whole picture,” he says. “You can’t just ignore people by assuming you know what’s good for them—you have to invest the resources to ask them how they feel about their lives.”

Michalos believes this idea is increasingly gaining currency among corporations and governments alike.

It’s certainly catching on here at home. In 1998, he founded the Institute for Social Research—a partnership between UNBC and the City of Prince George—to poll residents about issues of the day.

Initially, some members of city council resisted the idea. “They didn’t want people to think they were governing by polls, and didn’t want ‘techs’ like me usurping their electoral responsibility,” relates Michalos. “But…over the years, they’ve come to trust what we do, and found ways to use our work.”

The Institute’s research has informed Prince George council decisions on the municipal budget and topics such as a proposed casino expansion, home-based businesses, secondary suites, water conservation and walking trails.

Michalos’s questionnaires have been adapted for use in far-flung locations such as South Africa, Italy and Hong Kong. The successful partnership between the city and UNBC has inspired similar collaborations in other cities, such as Gerona, Spain.

“I’ve been trying to build a culture of evidence-based decision-making,” says Michalos.

Global good

Michalos’s passion for research that promotes the greater good is going global. After being elected in 1993 to be a fellow in the Royal Society of Canada, he was offered the job of Chair of UNESCO’s Sectoral Commission on Natural, Social and Human Sciences.

“It was a perfect fit, and I fell in love with that organization,” he says, calling it the “crown jewel” of the United Nations. His eyes well up and he smiles warmly when he considers its significance: “It’s this huge worldwide organization devoted to making peace the right way—through education, science, culture and communication.”

Michalos believes a new wave of interest in quality-of-life research, which he’s witnessed over the past six years, is due partly to the phenomenon of globalization. “It’s been sold by governments around the world as an engine for making people’s lives better, but a lot of people’s lives have actually been made worse. Governments realize they need real measures of progress.”

Michalos expects to have preliminary conclusions from his arts and quality of life research in hand by late January, share his results at an international conference in December, and publish them in his Social Indicators Research Journal in 2008. It may even inform a book he intends to write which would explore how humans have defined “the good life” for 2800 years.

While the “happiness expert” crunches the numbers, he offers up this gem—reaffirmed by decades of formal study: “People whose primary goal is the pursuit of money tend to have a negative relationship with life satisfaction, while those whose goals include high quality personal relationships have higher levels of life satisfaction,” says Michalos.

“After a certain level of income that meets your basic needs, your satisfaction with family—and living partner in particular—is about six times more important than income in predicting quality of life… So if you have to choose between money and someone to love, go with love.”

© Larissa Ardis 2007