What Makes for a Happy Country?

Recently, the very first World Happiness Report was launched by the United Nations, and Canada faired pretty darn well. After Denmark, Norway, Finland, and the Netherlands (all Northern European countries, of note), Canada ranked a respectable fifth. The least happy countries are all in Sub-Saharan Africa (Togo, Benin, Central African Republic, Sierra Leone). The report speaks to two broad measurements of happiness: the ups and downs of daily emotions, and an individual’s overall evaluation of life.

So what makes a country happy? Some of the criteria is fairly obvious – for example, wealthier countries ranked higher that poorer countries – while some criteria is a bit more surprising. Take, for instance, the role that political freedom and an absence of corruption play – together, these two factors, along with having strong social networks, play a greater role in well-being than income. In fact, while basic living standards were found to be essential for happiness, after the baseline was met happiness was found to vary more with quality of human relationships than income. Additional factors impacting happiness, at an individual level, included mental and physical health, job security, and stable families.

Not only does this information provide us all with some tips about where we might consider relocating, or changes we might consider making in our personal lives, it also offers important information about the society in which we live. As discussed within the report, such information can signify underlying crises or hidden strengths, and can often suggest the need for change. Such findings can also help countries to develop healthy public policies and practices. For example, based on the findings in the report, policy goals should include high employment and high-quality work; a strong community with high levels of trust and respect, which government can influence through inclusive participatory policies; improved physical and mental health; support of family life; and a decent education for all. With the attention paid over the last few years to the financial status of countries around the world, a report that focuses on happiness provides a refreshing lens through which to view true wealth.

Jamie Oliver’s Food Fight Arrives in Oz

Australians have known for a long time that we have a bit of a problem with food. As a population we’re not the healthiest eaters, which our national dish of meat pies with chips and beer is a pretty good indication of. But over the past five years, our little problem with food has grown into a big national issue.

A bit over 17 million Australians are overweight or obese, a figure that has more than doubled in the past ten years. If we continue to gain weight at the current levels, by 2020 we’re going to be a country where 80 per cent of adults and one third of all children are overweight or obese.

Obviously, this is going to lead to some epic issues if something isn’t done about it soon. Financially, there will be the enormous increase in healthcare costs as the Australian population succumbs to the inevitable health problems that come with being overweight. Then there’s the fact that on the basis of present trends we can predict that by the time they reach the age of 20, our kids will be the first generation with a shorter life expectancy than earlier generations, simply because of obesity.

So how is the government dealing with this problem? Well, judging by today’s announcement, by bringing in the culinary big gun himself – Jamie Oliver.

Jamie Oliver and Victorian Health Minister David Davis (who incidentally, has not let a ridiculous name stand in the way of his political career) announced today that Jamie’s Ministry of Food would be implemented to Victoria in an attempt to solve the state’s substantial obesity problem.

Jamie’s Ministry of Food is a community-focused program that teaches basic cooking skills and good nutrition to non-cooks, regardless of age, demographic or ethnicity, to improve their quality of life and health. It’s very much a grass-roots program that’s based on empowering people to think differently about food by equipping them with simple cooking skills and knowledge.

In the food guru’s own words: “The Ministry of Food is so simple in what it does: it’s about celebrating great food with guidance, love, care and attention. It’s for anyone over the age of 12, from any background and it really does change lives.”

Judging by the comments on today’s Ministry of Food announcement, opinion is split fifty-fifty amongst Victorians about whether this program is the right way to tackle the obesity problem. About half of the comments were applauding both Jamie and the government for attempting to provide a solution to this issue, and the other half were lambasting the government for getting a ‘foreign celebrity chef’ involved in our domestic health issues.

It’s certainly going to be interesting to see how it all pans out, and if a community-based program really can change the way all Australians think about food.

Masthead photo from this photostream, body photo from this photostream. Both used with the permission of a Creative Commons license.

Mindcheck Builds Community Around Mental Health Awareness

Courtesy of Whitegadget.com

Former Vancouver Canuck, Rick Rypien, stuggled against depression for years, and sadly passed away in August 2011. The NHLer was touted as a “a quiet hero” who “confided in those he knew best of his plans to support others and help alleviate the stigma associated with mental illness by being a spokesperson of the ordeals of the disease.” Those who knew him best, like Kevin Bieksa, have committed to tell his story and carry out the mission as a legacy of their friend.

As told above by Bieksa (who, incidentally, blocks shots with his sprawling body because he’s awesome), Rick’s tragic passing has galvanized the Vancouver Canucks community to speak out about mental health issues, which has resulted in the incredibly powerful mindcheck.ca‘s recently launched initiative called In One Voice.

Mental health and substance use challenges affect our community each and every day. So, if you know someone who is silently suffering, please speak up about it. Here are some facts that make the case:

  • Mental health and substance use disorders are the primary health issues experienced by young people in their teen years and early 20s. In fact, one in five youth in BC will experience a mental health or substance use disorder serious enough to cause significant distress and impair their ability to function at home, at school and with their peers.
  • Often early symptoms or behaviours are mislabeled as being just a phase or part of an individual’s personality. In addition, youth and young adults are often embarrassed to talk about or seek support for how they’re feeling or what they’re experiencing due to stigma.
  • 75% of mental health and substance use issues begin by age 24 and often go unrecognized and untreated. Mindcheck has been developed to connect youth and young adults to support early and quickly to prevent initial problems and challenges from developing into disorders. Support includes self-help resources, non-professional support, or established mental health services.
  • When issues are identified early, simple self-help strategies are often all that are needed to help young people get better in less time and can prevent things from becoming worse.

I believe in this idea and I spoke up because I’ve seen how mental health and substance use challenges can tear up families and communities – and it’s worse when we don’t talk about it. You can speak up by following this link. Here are some other reasons to believe in the idea:

  • Talking about and understanding mental health issues will eliminate the stigma that surrounds them.
  • Increasing knowledge about mental health issues will increase the likelihood that people will reach out for help.
  • When family and friends understand mental health issues, they will be able to recognize the behaviours associated with these issues and provide support.
  • According to the McCreary Centre Society’s 2008 Adolescent Health Survey Report, the vast majority of youth turn to their friends when they are seeking help. Among youth who sought support, they reported that advice from friends was even more helpful than advice from doctors, nurses, teachers or school counsellors.

Yes, the good people at Fraser Health, BC Mental Health & Addiction Services, the Provincial Health Services Authority, the RBC Children’s Mental Health Project, the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation, and the Canucks for Kids fund make a strong case for speaking up about mental health and substance challenges. Right, Kevin Bieksa?

Emergency Warnings: how much warning is too much warning?

A bit over a year ago, Daily Gumboot correspondent Katie Burns wrote a great post about the rise of resilience planning in emergency management, focussing on some great work being done in Australian cities. I remember reading it and feeling pretty stoked to be part of such a forward thinking and innovative bunch of people.

For a good ten years in Victoria, Australia, there was a significant movement towards developing resilient and responsible communities that understood the dangers of where they lived, knew how to respond to an emergency and could look after one another in a crisis.

Then, exactly three years ago today, everything changed when 173 people died and 2029 homes were destroyed in the Black Saturday bushfires. A Royal Commission was launched into how and why so many people lost their lives, and the final report included 67 recommendations for how emergency preparedness, education and response could be better managed.

One of the biggest changes for Victorians was the implementation of the Emergency Alert Warning System – a phone based warning system that sends a recorded message to landline phones and a text to cell phones advising people of impending emergencies. Over the past two years, the system has been used extensively to spread messages about floods, fires, chemical spills and cyclones, and I’m fairly certain that a message for the zombie apocalypse is ready to go, and just waiting for someone to push the button.

The system is a great tool, and is undoubtedly an important part of the overall emergency warning process, but sadly, it seems to be slowly removing the resilience and sense of responsibility that used to be a characteristic of Victorian communities during emergencies.

Anecdotal evidence is starting to show that instead of using intuition and local knowledge, people are now waiting for official warnings before they decide how they will respond to an emergency situation. One quote from a Melbourne newspaper has stayed with me since the floods in Victoria early last year, when a long-term local in a flood-prone area was quoted as saying “we could see the river rising behind the house, but we never got a warning”.

Don’t get me wrong, Emergency Alert is a great system, but like all great systems, it replies on a person to operate it, and sometimes that person has far less idea of what is actually happening than the people on the ground that are living the emergency.

It’s a simple fact of emergency management that sometimes, communities know better than official sources, and if you can see, hear, smell or feel an emergency happening around you, waiting for an official warning might not be the safest thing to do.

What do you think? Is there such thing as over-warning a community of an impending emergency situation? Or is it the role and responsibility of emergency agencies to ensure that as far as possible, everyone receives a warning whenever and wherever they need it?

Streetfront Builds a Community for Troubled Youth Around Running

Photo courtesy of the Vancouver Courier

Hidden away in a pair of joined portables on the cusp of Britannia Secondary’s property is one of the Vancouver School Board’s most dynamic and inspiring programs.

It’s called Streetfront. Captained by Head Teacher Trevor Stokes, Streefront is an alternative program aimed at giving kids that don’t fit into regular secondary school a second chance by making them work for it. How? Marathon running. For the past decade, Stokes has been taking bunches of youth to compete (and finish) in the Seattle and Vancouver Marathons. Frequently the youngest competitors of these 42.195 kilometer races are Streetfront youth.

For Stokes, the marathon is a perfect metaphor for his students’ lives, particularly the lives of troubled kids used to quitting (and being quitted on). He’s fond of saying that during a marathon, there are 42,195 opportunities to quit. That his students choose to push their physical limits and persevere says a lot. Their drive to train and prepare over the months of less glamorous running in the rain and mud of Vancouver leading up to the run says even more.

Streetfront youth run three times a week and also do a wide range of other physical activities like soccer, basketball and skiing. Their runs take them everywhere. They run to nearby parks one day and then all the way to Deep Cove (in another suburb of the Lower Mainland) or Stanley Park the next day. Stokes says the running instils an impressive amount of discipline and structure in lives that frequently completely lack it.

The program is one of a number of innovative alternative programs offered throughout the city. It’s designed for Grade 8 – 10 students. During the semester, the students spend approximately 35 days out of 190 school days in the outdoor environment. This includes three full day camp trips. In between the runs and outdoor excursions, students work on math, sciences, socials and English.

The results have been inspiring. Some students that have failed or been kicked out of several schools thrive at the Streetfront program.  Others have managed to pull their lives together, find work, enter back into secondary school and go on to university. Then there are the alumni. Stokes says groups of them still keep coming back to run with him and his students, years after graduating. Talk about a powerfully inspiring community.


Winter has been slow arriving this year. In a lot of ways it is hard to complain. The warmer weather is easier on our energy bills and makes for an less stressful commute, especially as a transit strike since October still has me driving when I’d much rather be reading, listening to music, or doing a better job with my gumboot posts. But at the same time there are a lot of parts of winter that I’ve been looking forward to that as a result of the warmer weather I’ve put off. But in the last couple of weeks winter has shown up in Toronto, the air is crisp and there is snow on the ground. I want to share a few things that make the dark, cold, snowy (or rainy) months something for me to enjoy and hope you too find positivity in the months ahead.

Getting (and Sleeping) Outside.

I wasn’t always a fan of spending time outside in winter until I started running a few years ago and kept on running right through winter.  (Check out Jim’s past post on the lonely community of winter runners).  I then realized that being outside in winter makes those dark vitamin D deprived months a lot better. Sure there aren’t seemly endless hours of sunshine and instead there are layers of every type of clothing imaginable, but there also aren’t sunburns or mosquitoes.  This year, Jim and I are taking our quest to embrace winter a step further with our plan to complete a whole year of camping every month.  And after sleeping outside on Dec. 23 and Dec. 24, with temperature dipping close to -20C the first night and waking up to a white Christmas the next, I can say that I’m looking forward to more outside time in the months ahead.

Seasonal Hobbies (and hobbies that adapt to the season).

When I’m not outside in winter I enjoy being curled up on a coach with cat on my lap, watching TV, which I do way more of in the winter (I’m re-watching The Wire right now).  Two additional hobbies make this better, knitting and beer.  I’m a seasonal knitter and it wasn’t until last week that I picked up the needles again, which coincided with Toronto’s first substantial snowfall.  It means that when my tendency is more towards hibernation than outside, I end up with something cozy coincidentally makes winter better.  Beer, which I’ve recently started brewing, had to undergo some adaptations for winter, which we’re still working out.  The brewery has moved from friends’  backward to our apartment for the winter, where our back deck’s overhang and ground-level bathtub (for the beer chilling) means we can brew through the cold months.  And as long as we figure out how to adjust for the higher evaporation rate in winter we’ll keep ending up with amazing beer.

Tomatoes, Endings and Beginnings

And finally, what would one of my lists be without a reference to tomatoes.  I’ve just cooked my last fresh tomatoes a couple of days ago. That’s right, tomatoes that I grew on my back deck that have been slowly ripening wrapped in newspaper in the months since they’ve been picked in the fall.  They were delicious.  And while that should make me sad, it is only a mere month and a half until I plant tomato seeds again.  In the meantime, I have cans of crushed tomatoes, homemade salsa, pizza sauce, and ketchup for the down-time in mid-winter.

What makes you happy about winter? 

Getting our daily dose of “Vitamin G”

Last September, over 200 participants took part in a unique forum in Vancouver to discuss nature and health – more specifically, the impact of spending time in nature on health, and the contribution of parks and protected areas to healthy communities. The forum sought to share knowledge, foster linkages between diverse sectors, and to identify best practices, strategies, and tools.

One of the things discussed by presenters and attendees was how people intuitively know that being in nature, simply put, makes them feel good. Whether getting a dose of ‘Vitamin Green’ helps to relieve stress, lift the spirit, or provide a bit of perspective on life, getting out into nature seems to contribute to enhanced wellbeing. While everyone intuitively understands this, our reductionist North American tendencies have had us questioning how and in what ways nature has this effect on health for the past decade or so. Well, good news for those of you scientific folk out there (you know who you are!) – the quantitative evidence supports a nature-health link. Our intuitive selves have been right all along! As discussed by keynote speaker Dr. Frances Kuo, research has linked healthy urban ecosystems to stronger, safer neighbourhoods, lower crime, reduced AD/HD symptoms, and reduced aggression, with benefits still being found even when income and other factors that could explain a nature-health link are taken into account. Additional quantitative evidence exists at the physiological level as well, with benefits having been measured objectively through such indicators as blood pressure and immune system functioning. For a comprehensive review of the literature, check out this National Recreation and Park Association report written by Dr. Kuo.

So now the evidence is there to prove what we kinda knew all along. What’s next? Well, at an individual level, we can all get outside more. If you’re like the bulk of urbanites, you may not be close to mountains, lakes, and forests (although a shocking number of us here in B.C. actually are – not to rub it in, Toronto). Forum presenters actually addressed this, and made it clear that nature can be found anywhere – a nearby park or stream by your house, a patch of trees outside your work – and even the smallest exposure to nature has been found to be beneficial.  In addition, urban planners and health professionals have been starting to act based on this ever-growing body of evidence. For example, some physicians are now prescribing time in nature to their patients.

Getting past the urban/nature divide may take some work ... but it can be done

It’s clear that to address this at a population level, an interdisciplinary approach is needed, with health professionals, urban planners, and environmental specialists being just a few of the disciplines who need to be at the table to ensure that all Canadians have access to diverse and regular sources of nature. If this forum is any indication, these various disciplines are ready and willing to come together to focus on this in creative and holistic ways.



99 Ways to Leverage Our Humanity – Part 3

[Editor's note: I must start by saying that what unfolds below is a team effort - thanks to everyone who has contributed to this list! So, for better or worse, many parts of the world have been recently occupied - and in some places, like Vancouver, this may or may not be coming to an end. Many elements of the Occupy Movement have issued demands. Personally, I see many problems with demands, as they imply binary-negotiating and/or unchangeable beliefs. Personally, I see more value and possibility in ideas and collaborative brainstorming - though this is a much harder process for certain. Some other folks share a love for collaboration and they have kindly offered their ideas in world-changing list-form. So, without further ado, here is part three of a four-part series that is meant to get our community thinking about how our brilliant, passionate, inspiring, adaptive, funny, delicious, healthy, and innovative humanity can make the world a better place. Thanks for the memories, everyone!].

How can we leverage our humanity to solve the world’s problems?

Here are ideas 1-25. And here are ideas 26-50. And here are ideas 51-75:

  1. Hike.  Get out in nature’s bosom.  Commune with the forest spirits.  Skinny dip.  Roll in dirt.  It’s clean.  Sit.  Listen.  Yell!  Pee your name in the snow (men only, I think).  Play capture the flag.  Know Nature.  Know Its value to you personally.  Because you can’t want to protect something if you don’t even know what it is.
  2. Cycle.  You’ll see more and feel good.  Buy rain pants and suit up.  You’ll be dry under you clothes (and naked!).  Be visible.  Cyclists are the future:  fuckin non-motorized, non-electronic cyborgs on wheels.
  3. Draw.  Not for art’s sake.  For communicating.  Long before we wrote, we drew.  On cave walls and on bark and hide.  Appreciate the symbolic nature of signs and symbols, and the miracle that allows all humans to interpret them.  Ed Emberley is a prophet.
  4. Drink.  Water.  H2O.  Its ubiquity only adds to its many mysteries.
  5. Learn.  A language.  Or several.  Or even just a smattering of words.  Knowing another’s tongue is the quickest way to break the ice and will allow you to more easily understand ‘the other’.
  6. Objectify.  Be partial.  Know that your opinions are opinions and based on what you believe you know.  Do not mistake passion for rightfulness.  Choose to be emotional; do not make emotional choices.
  7. Listen.  You talk too much.  Listening allows for ideas to reveal themselves to speakers who may not even know they have such ideas.  If you can’t listen, pretend to listen, as this often has the same effect.
  8. Keep.  Imbue physical objects with meaning.  A ring, a rock, or even a house.  We are physical creatures living in a physical world, not virtual avatars.  Don’t tear down old buildings.  Believe in ghosts and spirits.
  9. Teach.  To teach is to learn well.  Whether it be abstract or practical knowledge, by teaching it you will learn it deeper, and it will become you.
  10. Smile.  In monkeys it lowers tension and creates group harmony.  We are all monkeys.  Faking is acceptable as it often leads to the real thing.  Emotions and your facial muscles are inextriclaby linked. You can fool your own brain.
  11. Don’t.  Don’t do anything.  Eke.  Survive.  Be simple.  Learn the art of inertia.  Laziness is godliness.  The planet will thank you for it.
  12. Think critically. Do not accept things for what they are and ask lots and lots of questions.
  13. Perform. Sock puppets, Shakespeare, Improv, and Musicals are great ways to tell stories as well as tackle the pesky problem of fearing public speaking.
  14. Dance with people. And, to quote a wise man named Jim, “never let the rhythm control your dancing.”
  15. It might’ve been said before but it bears repeating: learn another language. This will help when you visit other places. And it will really help you visit communities not just tourist attractions.
  16. Have heroes and role models who exist in the real world, not the hyper-sexed and overly violent fictional worlds of so much media.
  17. Send handwritten thank you cards. First, because it’s the right thing to do. Second, people love getting mail and, let’s face it, the cards are outstanding advertising for your personal brand!
  18. Be skeptical and question authority. This doesn’t mean rebelling against anything and everything; it just means that you shouldn’t take everyone at their word all the time.
  19. Strive to be a bit more of an armchair economist so that you can understand – and share knowledge about – the complex workings of the global financial system.
  20. Commit to keeping the complex complex. Sometimes simple solutions come at the erosion and sacrifice of necessarily complex and important things.
  21. Remember that the things you own end up owning you. The only logical solution here is for you to give your things away so that they can own other people.
  22. Take off/out your headphones and/or earbuds and listen to the world around you. This will expose you to funny things, interesting things, and things that will inspire you to engage members of your community in conversation.
  23. Collaborate. Like a symphony. Working together is the only way that we’re going to pull ourselves out of this mess.
  24. Find common ground with someone who has a totally different worldview than you. It’s possible. I mean, Kurt and John do it every day on this blog!
  25. Recognize that humanity’s adaptability will see us through tsunamis, earthquakes, peak oil, and the zombie apocalypse; however, there will be catastrophic collateral damage and many of us will not survive the next 100 years. Try your best to be okay with this fact and also try really, really hard to not be a weird survivalist who makes people super uncomfortable while riding the bus…

Masthead photo courtesy of Kurt Heinrich, who is awesome.

Digital Fill – Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation Infographic

In the past we’ve written a few articles about the Dr. Peter Center and Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation and what they do for a community of some of our most marginalized and sick citizens. We’ve detailed how the DPC has been a leading advocate for drug policy reform and harm reduction in the ongoing battle to convince our conservative federal government that Canada’s current policy of criminalizing drug use just doesn’t make a lot of sense, neither from a “law and order” or from a health perspective.

Recently the DPC released a groovy new graphic which sketches out all the great work they do everyday with folks. It neat because it effectively maps out the wide range of services provided by the centre. Have a look and prepare to be inspired. If you’d like to kick in some money there way this holiday season, you can do so here.

Mackenzie Noot – The All-World Neighbour

Who are you?

How can I attempt to answer this question at 1:30 in the morning?! I am Mackenzie of Clan Noot of Driffield Rd. Eldest child of two fantastic individuals, Tim and Theresa, both of whom instilled solid values and nurtured a love of life and adventure in their offspring. I’m a sister, a daughter, a granddaughter, and an auntie of two little munchkins. I’m an advocate for healthy living, I’m a westcoast girl, a gumboot wearing deckhand on the Titanium, and a surgical nurse. I am a collector of the world’s greatest friends. Although I have no “special” talent, I can easily be convinced that I’m the next lead singer in Aerosmith or a backup dancer for Britney. Some may say that I have courage to a fault. Those people are merely disillusioned ;) Overall, I’m a small town gal of Merville, a somewhat charasmatic nerd with really cool friends and family.

What do you do for fun?

Well I’d have to list eating (especially seafood), sleeping and laughing as my top three fave hobbies. Although I also like anything to do with the ocean – aside from sports fishing – too boring. My major passion is getting out and about in the world experiencing new people and places. This year I spend 3.5 months “having fun” travelling. And, my secret fave thing to do is deep chest compressions on a patient. This may sound morbid, but there’s nothing more satisfying than doing everything you possibly can to bring someone back to life – including breaking ribs. Work is fun for me.

What is your favourite community? Why?

My fave community would be hands down that of Rennie Road. Nowhere else have I encountered neighbours and friends who lend out anything from baking essentials to automobiles to skill sets to hugs. If you need a hand tackling pigs to building garages to putting on a wedding, we’re on it. Y2K no big deal on Rennie Rd … we practiced baking over woodstoves for months before New Years and would have monthly neighbourhood potlucks to celebrate. Growing up there, you always had extra parents and a herd of playmates – those off all whom remain good friends and second families. The support, kindness, friendship, and love of those that live in this small community is something to be cherished and is, I fear, quite uncommon.

What is your superpower?

I honestly wish I could say flying. However, I’ll settle on a super human ability to connect with those around me? Yep, I suppose that’d be it.

How do I use it to build community?

Well, the super human power of connecting with others is key in bringing my community together. If thats just a social meeting of friends, or workmates or neighbours … people tend to meet, greet and be merry. Which in the end makes me happy. Although a superhuman flying ability would be cooler.

My Three Favourite Things About Mackenzie Are…

1. She comes from good stock. Mackenzie’s family is all about kindness, hardwork, being local, and, you guessed it, family. I love the Noots’ big hearts, their athleticism, their sense of adventure, their entrepreneurial spirit, and the fact that the Noot Clan’s senses of humour truly run the gamut of sensation; from slapstick to wordplay to funny-hat-prop-comedy. Oh, and she – and the rest of her family – all proudly sport gumboots, too.

2. Hilarity and Adventure become her. One need only befriend Mackenzie on Facebook to get a sense of her, um, sense of adventure. She’s traveled to many continents. She’s inspired and been inspired by many people and places. And she made it on many news programs on April 29, 2011 because her and some friends wore fancy hats to the Royal Wedding and know a thing or two about self-promotion. Positive, laugh-inspiring energy like Mackenzie’s hits your community like a train and, in my opinion, it’s in your best interest to hop on board and enjoy the ride!

3. Connectivity. A few months ago my sister got married and Mackenzie was one of the guests – well, she was much more than that. Truly, Mackenzie was one of the connectors at the event. She helped out, played games, pulled people on to the dance floor, cleaned-up, engaged introverted strangers, and definitely left a positive impact on the weekend. This was a window, I think, into how Mackenzie just plain connects with people.