Why we aren’t happy

In communities, Loneliness, Urban living, Vancouver on April 6, 2013 at 1:26 am
Scene from "The Happy Land" at the Court Theatre, Illustrated London News, 1873. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Scene from “The Happy Land” at the Court Theatre, Illustrated London News, 1873. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site | August 20, 2012

Circulation: 100,000 monthly readers

In its recent survey of 3,841 people in the metropolitan area, the Vancouver Foundation discovered a “high level of loneliness.” The survey, entitled Connections and Engagement, sought to measure people’s feelings of connection to their friends and family and their engagement in their neighborhoods and metro Vancouver. There’s nothing very surprising about the report’s findings, but what stuck me is the questions it raised about the broader implications of personal happiness and community.

The report found that “Vancouver can be a hard place to make friends; our neighborhood connections are cordial but weak; [and] many people in metro Vancouver are retreating from community life.”

What’s more: “Over a third of us have no close friends outside our own ethnic group. And we generally believe that people prefer to be with others of the same ethnicity.”

And: “Most people believe Vancouver is becoming a resort town for the wealthy.”

All of which raise important questions for our political future. The less connected we feel to our neighbors, the less involved we are in the life of our community. I shudder to think how many Vancouverites I’ve talked to over the last five years who no longer think their vote matters.

I wonder how much this is particular to Vancouver and how much this is a national trend. To be sure, Montreal and Toronto have a different feel. More tension, yes. But with that tension comes a sense of fuller participation. Try getting into a cab in Montreal and remaining disengaged. Impossible.

What we love to praise about Vancouver is its natural beauty, its “quality of life.”

Clearly more laid back and seemingly more focused on personal happiness than cities back East, Vancouver has a weird sense of detachment. And I’m not talking about the spiritual kind. Events beyond the mountains seem very far away indeed. And one is lulled again and again by the mountains and the sea into a drowsy apathy.

I once described Vancouver to a friend as dream-like.

“Nonsense,” he said. “It’s narcotic.”

Whether or not it’s drug induced, the detachment of Vancouverites is unsatisfying. I hear a good bit of complaining about lack of community. The problem is, what can community mean in a world where more and more of us telecommute and are members of virtual teams? What does community mean in a city where no one has a dining room? And where most of overheard conversation in restaurants is about electronic devices, and each table is lit by smart phones?

Again, this drifting apart is not unique to Vancouver, but it’s where I see it happening and where it concerns me.

And I suspect it is just the latest narcissitic iteration of the Me Generation.

A character in Denys Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire quotes a philosopher who maintains that a society devoted to personal happiness has played itself out. And that’s what I find myself wondering: whether or not as a culture we’re defunct. If, in fact, we are not much interested in connecting to one another or being active in our community and are instead busily pursuing an individual happiness in whatever form it is packaged and sold to us, then the end is surely near. Or one would hope.

But I’m not convinced. And neither is the Vancouver Foundation.

As a step toward involving “the general public in conversations about solutions,” the Vancouver Foundation is hosting a program called “Alone Together: Connecting in the Urban Environment” in conjunction with SFU September 18-23.

For more information, visit:

Take our poll, “What makes you happy?”


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