Happy Communities Research Makes Case for Connecting with Your Neighbour

John Helliwell presenting at at a CIFAR Building Better Lives & Communities symposium. Photo credit: J.P. Moczulski.

Happy Communities Research Makes Case for Connecting with Your Neighbour

Evidence shows people who think they live in a good community are happier

After 15 years of intensive research into what makes for happy lives, John Helliwell is most energized by this theme — the power of the social compared to the material in making people happy.
John is a Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) senior fellow and co-director of the Social Interactions, Identity & Well-Being program. He is also co-author of the 2015 World Happiness Report to be released this month.
“The human being is much more pro social — that is, they enjoy giving much more than we think they do,” John says.
Research has shown that natural disasters often end up making people happier than they were before. This is because a disaster provides a chance for people to recognize, polish off, use and hence build their capacities for doing things with and for each other, John says.
“If you put people in an opportunity where they have a chance to give really serious and important help to others, that not only helps the people they’re helping have a better life, but it makes them happier in the process,” he says.
John and his colleagues are keen to see individuals, communities and governments take their research on what makes for happier lives seriously and apply it to their own scenarios.

While they don’t suggest that fabricating a natural disaster is the answer, their findings appear to be at the same time more simple and more difficult than might be anticipated.

In part, the call is as simple as becoming intentional about connecting with others — getting to know your neighbour.

  John with George Akerlof, a CIFAR senior fellow and Nobel laureate.

The evidence John and his colleagues have collected reveals that people are happier in communities that are closely related to one another and where residents see family and friends often. This tends to be harder to achieve in larger urban centres than smaller communities, and people may need to step outside of their comfort zones in order to make those connections with others.

And it’s not that people have to wait for something big to be done by somebody else, John says. It can be as simple as individuals in their own neighbourhoods and communities reaching out — and throwing a neighbourhood party, for example.

The evidence also shows that if people think they live in a good community, they will be happier.

When Toronto residents were surveyed on their expectations around whether a wallet they’d lost would be found and returned by a stranger, one in four expected a positive outcome.

The survey was followed up with an experiment that entailed dropping 20 wallets around the city. Sixteen of the 20, or 80 per cent, of the wallets were returned.

This experience corroborates that the world based on fact is a much better world than the one based on people’s opinions, John says.

But of course people’s opinions are formed from their experiences and what they hear, so how could so many be so wrong?

For John, the answer comes down largely to the tremendous power of the media.

“If people haven’t lost their wallets enough to speak from their own experiences, then they rely on what they read and hear from others,” John says. Much of that hearsay is pessimistic news reports.

“People’s willingness to return wallets, to talk to people in elevators, to invite their neighbours to a party, all of those connecting things . . . depend on their view of the community they live in,” John says.

“It’s not a scary world, it’s a world of people like you who would benefit from and enjoy more contact, and we’re really shooting ourselves in the foot by thinking not enough good about the communities in which we live.”

John’s hope is that this happiness research contributes to changing society’s view of what’s important to well-being.

Things that people might otherwise not pay much attention to — such as the need for intentional connectivity and changing the stories we listen to and tell ourselves — are now being proven by science to be critical to well-being.

John suggests that those who take this evidence seriously should at least want to be running experiments to see if the theory holds true in their own scenarios.

John joins several experts and researchers at an April 21 forum in Vancouver on building happy communities. Hosted by CIFAR, the forum is part of a national series of events on social innovation.

The forum will include the release of the first official data on happiness across Canadian communities.

This afternoon discussion will be moderated by Al Etmanski and takes place in conjunction with the exhibition Stefan Sagmeister: The Happy Show, which officially opens April 23.

To learn more about the April 21 forum, click here.

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