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Why Canadian budgetary policy makers are paying attention to the hope, purpose and meaning Canadians see in their lives


Budget makers are concerned that traditional economic policy might be bad at promoting happiness, because it focuses on income and GDP, not true subjective measures of well-being

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Long before the pandemic sparked the modern renaissance of amateur sourdough baking, one of the earliest examples of the crisis hobbyist in Western culture was when Noah, exhausted after The Flood and enjoying a new covenant with God, really got into gardening.

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Cut off from his usual employment as an ark builder, the patriarch found a new way to meaningfully busy himself by tilling the soil, particularly for grapes. Then he got rip-roarin’ wasted on the fruit of the vine and passed out, naked, thereby causing a great turmoil when his son found him. It’s all there in Genesis. You can hardly blame him. The man had been through a lot.

Life’s meaning and purpose often ironically show themselves in undignified moments like this, at the end of a period of trial or tribulation. Like the drunk hitting the metaphorical bottom, the human sense of life’s meaning often follows serious adversity. Hope follows despair, comfort follows pain, determined purpose follows fearful uncertainty.

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Easter is a reminder of this theme, with its story of meaning and purpose revealed through suffering. Like the Passover celebration in which it originated, Easter is a springtime feast of deliverance, looking forward from misery to salvation, often with a nice roast lamb. This year, Ramadan also coincides with the northern hemisphere springtime, with fasting and prayer meant to cultivate a sense of renewed devotion and purpose.

What is unusual this year is how much Canadian budgetary policy makers care about all this, and how closely they have started paying attention to the hope, purpose and meaning Canadians see in their lives. First results have just been released from a new experiment of Statistics Canada on behalf of the Department of Finance, to collect data on people’s sense of meaning and purpose in order to better inform federal budgets.

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You can’t science your way to a purpose in life. Even economists know this, and so they flipped the question

This has been in the works as policy for at least a decade, based largely on ideas and research developed in Canada by economist John Helliwell of the University of British Columbia and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. He has shown, for example, that a person’s trust in their neighbours is a more reliable predictor of happiness than income. The idea is catching on. New Zealand promotes its budget as a “well-being budget,” and the United Kingdom has published an official guide to using “well-being” in governmental cost-benefit analyses.

The idea of most interest to Ottawa budget makers is that traditional economic policy might be at odds with human nature and bad at promoting happiness, because it focuses on income and gross domestic product, not the true subjective measures of human well-being.

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But something else urgent happened over the pandemic. You can see it in recent polling that suggests people are still happy, on the whole, despite it all, and expect to be more happy. Like Noah, they believe in their future well-being enough to pursue it. Even if they turn out to be wrong, it’s worth it for the Department of Finance to know that they think this way, at least for planning purposes. It’s the attitude that matters.

For all that the pandemic has done — killed many people and weakened others, destroyed businesses, burdened the young and the elderly, robbed everyone of opportunity, roused defiance, and blossomed into a thousand denialist theories — it also changed people. Some people lost their purpose when the world locked down. Some were about to find it.

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Philosophers sometimes like to breezily dismiss questions about the meaning of life, but that’s just because they like to be difficult. Some say the question “What is the meaning of life?” is poorly formed. It doesn’t make sense. Life is not the sort of thing that has meaning, like words or symbols do. Life just is. We give it meaning.

But that’s to miss what the question really means. It’s not looking for a universal answer or some tidy conclusion, like Douglas Adams’ joke about the “Ultimate Answer” being 42.

It’s a good question. It’s just not a scientific question. You can’t science your way to a purpose in life. Even economists know this, and so they flipped the question, not inquiring what it is, but measuring whether people think they had it or not. That turns out to be a lot easier.

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The meaning of life might be ineffable, but it is also like the late United States Supreme Court Judge Potter Stewart described “hard-core pornography” in the 1964 obscenity case of Jacobellis v. Ohio. We struggle to define it. A definition might even be impossible. But we know it when we see it.

And it’s on the rise. Well, maybe. It seems to be. This is a new survey question, taken late last year, and thus only a baseline and not a historically trackable metric. That will come later. But in its announcement last month of the first results from the survey asking, “to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile,” Statistics Canada also offered some prior comparables, including the recent two-year update on social and economic impacts of the pandemic that showed a decline in mental health, as yet unresolved, and a report on the observed decline in life satisfaction.

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Well-being is on the agenda. Social psychologists, economists and policymakers are getting together to track and respond to it.

“There are signs of conceptual maturation of these efforts, in which the statistical measurement of happiness, the frameworks for assessing progress, and the technical analysis for informing policy are coming into alignment,”wrote Christopher P. Barrington-Leigh, a leading scholar of subjective wellbeing and associate professor at McGill University jointly between its Institute for Health and Social Policy and the Bieler School of Environment.

One problem, which the meaning of life shares with the more familiar metric of Gross Domestic Product, is how to account for its uneven distribution. For example, the new data shows the measure increases with age, and women are slightly more likely than men to report a strong sense of purpose. Rural Canadians at 69 per cent were more likely to have a strong sense of purpose than urban residents at 58 per cent. Most strikingly, 40 per cent of LGBTQ people felt a strong sense of meaning or purpose compared to 61 per cent of straight people.

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“Populations do not experience happiness; individuals do,” Barrington-Leigh wrote in the most recent World Happiness Report, released last month, the tenth since 2012. “Indeed, this is precisely the power of the subjective well-being approach: it privileges each human’s individual experience, not specialist intuition or political priorities, above all in defining well-being.”

Economist John Helliwell’s research led to the idea of marrying economy policy to personal well-being.
Economist John Helliwell’s research led to the idea of marrying economy policy to personal well-being. Photo by Jenelle Schneider/Postmedia/File

This is the great interest of the meaning of life in the age of pandemic. Ancient themes show up again in new and modern ways.

What has been less well understood recently by social science is the way pain or adversity can promote this sense of meaning. But they are on it, and watching the new numbers for effects of the pandemic’s tribulations.

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In his new book Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning, Paul Bloom, a University of Toronto psychology professor, identifies two sorts of chosen pain: the kind that can give pleasure such as “spicy foods, hot baths, frightening movies, rough sex, intense exercise,” and the kind that comes from such exhausting effortful hardships like climbing mountains and having children. The first kind gives pleasure and satisfaction. The second gives meaning and purpose.

They are subtly different, and often confused. For example, social psychologists study the “parenthood paradox,” which is that having children tends to decrease happiness, but increase meaning. As the prominent social psychologist Roy Baumeister once described in his book Meanings of Life: “They continue to believe that their children have made them happy and strengthened their marriages, even when the data clearly show otherwise.”

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People seek meaning and purpose through adversity without even realizing it, and that’s usually where they find it.

In his famous meditation on “What is a Saint” in Beautiful Losers, in which the plague-scarred Saint Kateri Tekakwitha gives meaning to the lives of three people in 1960s Montreal, the late Leonard Cohen wrote that a saint does not set the universe in order, or “dissolve the chaos” even for himself. Rather, a saint is like an “escaped ski. His course is a caress of the hill… he traces with the fidelity of a seismograph needle the state of the solid bloody landscape.”

Canada has just started using a novel Canadian-designed metric to track those contours of a good and meaningful life as they rise and fall through times of adversity and recovery, ostensibly to improve the federal budgets, but fundamentally to better understand what we are doing here and why.

It’s just crazy enough to work.

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