A team of happiness researchers at the University of British Columbia and McGill University has published a working paper on the geography of well-being in Canada.
They compiled 400,000 responses to a pair of national Canadian surveys, to parse out distinctions in well-being for more than 1,200 communities, which, collectively represent the country’s entire geography.
In general, Canadians are pretty happy, but the researcher’s chief finding is that a striking association between population density and happiness.
When the researchers ranked all 1,215 communities by average happiness, they found that average population density in the 20 per cent most-miserable communities was more than eight times greater than in the happiest 20 per cent of communities.
“Life is significantly less happy in urban areas,” the paper concluded.
In the GTA, densely populated areas such as Toronto, Hamilton and Kitchener stand out as islands of relative unhappiness in a sea of satisfaction in the hinterlands.
“It’s not really useful to think â€¦ it’s just better to live in a rural area,” said Chris Barrington-Leigh, one of the authors of the study.
He explained that people in cities often have fewer social connections nearby, and feel less connected to their communities than people in rural areas.
“There’s nothing stopping us building strong communities as much as we can in cities,” he said.
The happiness measure is derived from a survey question that asks responses to rate “how satisfied” respondents are with their lives, on a scale from 1 to 10. Across Canada, community-level average responses to this question range from 7.04 to 8.94.
The authors found that the happiest communities had shorter commute times and less expensive housing, and that a smaller share of the population was foreign-born. Foreign-born Canadians tend to have fewer social connections, and may be less embedded in their communities, leading to less happiness.
They also found that people in the happiest communities are less transient than in the least-happy communities, that they are more likely to attend church and that they are significantly more likely to feel a “sense of belonging” in their communities.
It may seem contradictory that greater happiness is correlated with both lower population density (implying fewer interpersonal interactions), but studies indicate that small towns and rural areas are more conducive than cities to forming strong social bonds, which would explain some of the greater sense of belonging observed in the happiest Canadian communities.
“Think about how and where we spend our time, and where we have interactions with people that relate to meaningful things in our lives,” Barrington-Leigh said. “We’re incredibly social beings, and having close relationships and meaningful productive activities with people seems to be very important.”
Perhaps even more surprising are the factors that don’t appear to play a major role in community-level differences in happiness: average income levels and rates of unemployment and education. People may move to cities for good-paying jobs, but the Canadian study strongly suggests it’s not making them any happier.
But that doesn’t mean that low-population density causes happiness. A miserable city dweller who moves to the country might simply become a miserable country dweller, in other words.
However, it’s clear that there’s something about small towns and rural life that’s associated with greater levels of self-reported happiness among people who live in those places.