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.

Canvassing the Country

A cool story came to me across our virtual editor’s-desk that couldn’t be more fitting for a feature on the ‘boot.

It’s a community, using ideas from across Canada, coming together for a cause.

The bonus – it’s a community of artists, as a recovering painter and printmaker myself it’s exciting to get to talk to inspiring people working on a really cool project.

Here’s the skinny:

The MFPA (That’s the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists) have selected artists across Canada to work together on a canvas. It’ll travel the country as each artist paints a portion that is representative of their region. It’s like the Voyageur guitar, but less like a guitar and more like a tapestry of Canadian inspiration all in the name of supporting disabled artists and showcasing what can be achieved in the face of adversity.

That a group of artists are coordinating a collaboration across Canada is noteworthy enough. That the group of artists are all facing significant challenges, have found drive and inspiration through art, and are using that to inspire others is fantastic.

I got to talk with the painter Cody Tresierra, he’s got the canvas first and is painting a scene of the Stanley Park totem poles and coastal mountains as a representation of the West Coast. He says most of what he paints for the public is representative of the West Coast, and that lots of it is kind of a diary of where he goes. For himself and friends he does portrait work and experiments with really pushing colour.

Learning, seeing others progress and the ability to meet people from all over the world through the MFPA have been key for Cody. He was inspired to take up painting himself when one night, about two years into rehab at Pearson after a motor vehicle accident left him paralyzed from the neck down, he saw a lady painting with her mouth. The ability to produce something real you could look at and share had him hooked.

Cody’s perseverance in the face of adversity is inspiring – and his work is fantastic. Take a moment to connect with the group making this happen and use their dedication as inspiration to get something creative and constructive done yourself.

Go check out the MFPA – The association supports artists through selling cards, calendars, books and more, and  bookmark the Canvassing the Country page – each artists is also recording their work and you’ll be able to follow it as it develops and travels across Canada.

Harper Makes Shipbuiliding History

Some might say B.C. came out with the shorter end of the stick after the results of Canada’s $33 billion Shipbuilding bidding process were announced earlier this month. While Nova Scotia scored $25 billion to build snazzy warships, Vancouver’s Seaspan Yards only got $8 billion to knock together a few tugs and boats with nerdy names like “Channel Survey and Sounding Vessels,” or “Near-Shore Fishery Research Vessels.” But who really cares.  While these don’t make headlines like destroyers do, such a huge cash injection into B.C.’s ailing shipbuilding industry means a lot of jobs for tradespeople across the province – up to 4,000 over the next decade.

Premier Christy Clark tours Seaspan prior to announcement

I hate to admit it, but the Harper regime kind of got it right on this one. After Mulroney let domestic shipbuilding activity melt away post NAFTA, Harper is scoring major political points by revitalizing this proud part of our heritage, and injecting new stimulus into the  economy.  And don’t forget: the prime minister also lies awake at night fretting that Russia, Denmark, China, the U.S. (the list goes on) are cheekily sticking their flags on our arctic sea bed. 15 new frigates and a sexy icebreaker called Diefenbaker are meant to prevent that. Good thing too – those embarrassingly crappy, second-hand submarines we got from the Brits can barely float let alone do their job patrolling the “true north strong and free.”

 

Broad Minds or Empty Pockets: perspectives on travel

It’s almost a year today since my boyfriend and I arrived back in Australia after an epic two year travel adventure across Canada, the United States and South East Asia. Ironically, it’s also taken almost a year for us to pay-off the epic credit-card debt that we amassed on our travels.

Both these milestones have got me thinking lately about whether travel is worth both the effort and the expense. There are plenty of reasons to avoid or put off traveling, and they’re usually based on either your community or your career.

Why would you leave all your friends and family to go somewhere where you know no one? And what if something happens to your mum or dad while you’re away?  All your friends are having babies – shouldn’t you be settling down too?

Then there’s your career – what if Craig from Level 7 gets the promotion you want while you’re away? And how do you hide two years of ‘no-fixed-employment’ on your resume?

There’s no question that travel is difficult, expensive and importantly, it’s also completely intangible. But the benefits far outweigh the negatives.

During our travels we were lucky enough to live in one of the world’s most livable cities during one of the world’s biggest sporting events. We met amazing people that totally changed our perspective on life, and we experienced being part of numerous communities that we would never have seen at home.

But that doesn’t mean it was all sunshine and rainbows. We also arrived in Vancouver in the midst of a global economic meltdown, when hiring non-Canadians on short-term working holiday visas wasn’t a particularly attractive option for most employers. We had no jobs, no contacts, nowhere to live, and we had days when we came very close to forgetting about the whole travel idea and going home.

But once we managed to clear all the hurdles, we had an experience that will probably be the highpoint of our lives for quite some time to come.

Sure, we probably could have put down a deposit on a house with the amount of money we spent, but then we wouldn’t have a ton of amazing memories, some wonderful international friends, a much stronger relationship and the kind of self-awareness that only comes from being turned down for 30 jobs in the space of two months.

I think the best option when it comes to travel is to apply the grandkids rule. When you’re old and grey and having your food spoon-fed, what are you going to be telling your grandkids about the way your lived your life? Are you going to tell them about the great new outdoor setting you bought in 1992? Or the project you worked on in 2001? Or are you going to tell them about the time you had your Pringles stolen by a monkey in the Borneo jungle?

No amount of tangible ‘things’ will ever surpass the food you’ll taste, the people you’ll meet, the things you’ll see and the knowledge you’ll gain.

Need a Penny, Take a Penny…Please

Demonization.  What a word.  When I read it first I thought it was some kind of exorcism term.  But after perusing the Currency Act of Canada (did you know we had an Act about currency?  Bet you didn’t.) and some of its associated literature I became quite familiar with the word.  For those slower folks out there, it means to take money out of circulation…forever.  Well, maybe not forever, but probably forever.

I have long hated pennies. Even as I write I have a few stacks of pennies on my desk, refusing to use them for exact change.  Sure, looking at them all here I feel like Scrooge McDuck, but is that why we still have the little coins?  Is it to keep relevance to those dozen or so clinches and sayings?  I want pennies gone.  Forever.

In a recent study, by me, just now, I found that the Canadian mint made a bunch of pennies in 2009.  Any guesses how many?  C’mon.  Just guess.  Bet you have no idea how many they made.  Because no one cares about pennies, right?  For a country that probably doesn’t care about the little copperheads, our government minted 455,800,000.  In.  One.  Year.  With a little more digging by my research team (me), I calculated that they have minted approximately 32,000,000,000 pennies since 1908.  Yes, you read that number right.  32 billion.  Pennies.  Why are we doing this?

The Desjardin Financial Group published a report in 2007 saying that the cost to keep pennies in circulation cost $130,000,000 per year.  Or about 13,000,000,000 pennies.  Yes, that’s just under half of the number we’ve ever minted.

Where, or where are the pennies going?  Swear jars, wishing wells, candy, and people’s thoughts.  It costs 1.8¢ to make a penny these days.  When is the last time you bought anything for a penny?  I’ll tell you when: a long, goddamn time ago.  So why are these almost worthless pieces of copper (it’s composition is actually 94% steel, 1.5% nickel, 4.5% copper plating or copper plated zinc) still in circulation?

There are some people out there, and I’m not fingering the elderly here, who think they’re going to lose money without pennies.  And I suppose that with billions of dollars of pennies in the country (or somewhere else, according to the law of conservation of mass) there’s lots of money that would be “lost” if we just melted the bloody things.  The most ever saved by one person was only $13,084.59.  That’s the most someone could lose if we got rid of them…today.

Some smart money people say that we should adopt the Australian coin system, which uses the Swedish rounding system.  The Aussies don’t have a “quarter,” never beat our Bluenose, and don’t have any beavers either, so I reckon that we can keep our 25¢, 10¢ and 5¢ pieces fine.  If we have to.  I hate change in my pocket, going jing-a-ling-a-ling.  Yes, we’ll have to get used to it.  Of course it’ll be strange at first, like fingering the elderly.  But we’ll have to only have amounts ending in a .05, which is awesome.  Five fingers, right?

So waddya say, guys?  Can we get rid of the pesky pieces and save something more valuable for rainy days?

Community on a European Vacation

As it turns out, the recipe for Community is very simple; Singing in public, beer, and a little dash of wild animal. Surprisingly, I am not talking about drunken nights of karaoke (exclusively). I recently spent 6 weeks studying in Copenhagen, Denmark and followed that up with a two week northern European Vacation. Below is a selection of the top five community building places and activities I encountered in my travels. These are the things that made me think, “Man oh man, I wish I could do this at home!”

 

1. Mauerpark Market and Bearpit Karaoke (Berlin)

Late on a Sunday morning we headed over to Mauerpark for the Berlin’s local favourite flea market. After several hours of exploring the winding stalls of the outdoor market, with several stops to rest in mini-manufactured-beach beer gardens, we had had our fill of bargain hunting and novel snacks. So, made our way over to Bearpit Karaoke just outside the market gates. We were lucky enough to arrive just in time to hear a rousing rendition of Frank Sinatra’s My Way performed by a bearded, German, older gentleman. I was not entirely surprised to find out that this was not his first time in the Bearpit. The only performer who gave him a run for his money was this little girl who made the crowd fall silent before we all joined in to clap along with her song. It was a gorgeous day and the hill over the stage was stacked with people of all ages and walks cheering on the performers. The organizers turned an umbrella, a wagon, a laptop, and some speakers into one of the best boundary breaking, community-building events I have been to.

 

2. Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (Denmark)

This was my favorite museum and is a great example of how to make art an accessible and fun experience for a wide range of people. Before I made the trip myself I had heard from many people who couldn’t speak highly enough of the museum and one who said he took his kids there as often as possible. After spending several hours exploring the facility, all that I felt was missing was that feeling of backache that usually accompanies long walks on hard museum grounds. These grounds were not the usual museum grounds though and moved the visitor almost seamlessly between in and outdoor exhibits. There was even one point when we got to use a slide for transportation! (A transportation method that should be adopted on a much wider scale.)  Exploring the outdoors was a refreshing way to discover Louisiana’s impressive collection of sculptural works against a backdrop of the beautiful Øresund beach front and manicured hills that are perfect for a picnic on one side of the property and a beautiful lake nestled into a wooded area on the opposite side.

 

3. Midsummer’s Eve Celebrations (June 23, Copenhagen)

People go out en masse, not just to one spot but basically to any park, beach, or barge in town. They eat hogs, drink beer, and laugh and chat until someone lights a huge bonfire with a scarecrow/witch on top. That’s when they start singing in unison. Amazing.

 

4. A la Mort Subite (Brussels)

Founded in 1928, this was a stunningly beautiful Belgian bar whose name translates to  “At the Sudden Death”. Well if sudden death were to strike, there are plenty worse places you could be. Picture soaring ceilings, golden yellow walls and pillars, and locals enjoying a selection of Belgian beers so flavorful that it is probably impossible for anyone to claim they don’t like the taste of beer after trying these variations. This place had an incredible community atmosphere. We sat down at one of the long communal tables next to an older couple from Brussels who were only too happy to share with us the secret of the Brussels classic brew called Gueuze (it has to do with a reaction between the yeast and a bacteria that is only found in the air in Brussels) and their life long dream to travel to Canada. A perfect Belgian experience.

 

5. Elephants in the Park (Frederiksberg, Denmark)

Anyone who remembers when the Vancouver Zoo had a place in Stanley Park is not likely to have forgotten how awesome it was to go and watch the polar bears from the zoo’s outer confines. The Copenhagen Zoo has elephants that you can get within about 40 meters of from the surrounding park without paying the zoo’s hefty entrance fee. They play and throw dirt and swim and splash and break sticks and lift logs and sit on each other. Watching gigantic, beautiful, social creatures makes for easy conversation with the other observers and was a perfect place to chat with the very friendly Danes who always seem to out for a leisurely afternoon. The elephants were a mere five-minute walk from my apartment so I made a practice of visiting regularly.

If we can’t travel to Europe or have elephants in our backyards at least we can get together to drink some great craft brews and sing about it. Anyone got a karaoke machine?

 

 

 

 

Men Saying Hello: Canadian Male Greetings

I’ve never tipped my hat to another man walking down the street.  It’s not that they didn’t deserve the salutation, but I would have looked like a damn dufus had I done it.  Or perhaps it’s just not quite with the times (like the word dufus). With my friends, I hug them.  Sometimes.  Other times we’ll smile at a safe distance.  Sometimes we chest bump.  Of course I’m speaking of friends I have known for years.  What about in less familial situations, someone I’m not so close with?  Sometimes I have to suppress an urge to chest bump.

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time at airports.  These days I spend just about as much time as the baggage handlers and the folks with those plastic gloves.  I’ve been making some interesting observations about how we greet each other.  By “we” I mean men.  For me, the last decade or so has been spent in a sea of women: at work, in my family, and in most social settings.  Women everywhere.  And when there are women around, men tend to be far more comfortable with, well…with being more like women.  Open to touch.  Open to expressing feelings.  But like I said, I have been spending more time in airports lately in a part of the country where there are far fewer women.  In fact, it’s mostly men.  Men everywhere. And sometimes, only men.

When one group of people are together in the absence of a different group of people things change. A bunch of heterosexual men together, in the absence of women, can look like a locker room or it can resemble camaraderie in the trenches or dugouts.  Men alone are different than when there’s even one woman around.  We change.  We regress, or transgress, where the rules of engagement change instantly.  I’m not sure it’s better, and I’m certainly not certain it’s worse.  But it is most definitely different.

Before we slip off into complete generalities, I want to reel us back into tipping hats.  Salutations.   How do we straight men greet each other?  Shaking hands and chest bumps, right?  Au contraire.  I see so many terrible half-hugs between male friends, neither willing or comfortable with going all-in with a full embrace.  I see chin nods.  I’ve played party to elbow-holding handshakes even.  But handshakes aren’t always expected, and sometimes feel overly formal.  Chest bumping a 65 year old man with a big beer belly may seem and feel hilarious, but you just can’t be sure that they’ll be able to stomach it.  A lot is at stake.

After talking at length to my gay friends, they were confused about all these hetro-male problems – and I can’t help but agree.  Where’s the problem?  What’s broken-down?  Is this global?

No.

I’ve lived in countries where salutation is far more standardized than in Canada.  In Thailand you wai to greet someone; a gentle bow with your hands together in front, like in prayer.  The Thai social hierarchy dictates that you place your hands higher on your body or head for the more important person you are greeting.  For the king, you lie prostrate with your hands above your head to show respect and reverence.  There’s a system.  In Ecuador if you go to a party, you shake hands with every man in the room.  In the south of France you get to kiss women three times in greeting and farewell, handshakes for the men.  My male Italian friends would kiss each other on the cheek – so convivial.  But here in Canada we’ve lost the standard greeting.  And forget about kissing an acquaintance, unless you work in theatre. Our salutations are all over the place and it seems that no one really knows the rules.  But that’s Canada for you.  So post-modern.

I sometimes get the chin-nod from acquaintances passing-by.  There’s the high-five, creepy wink, unwanted squeeze, complicated hand thing where one guy drops his elbow and thumbs are grabbed, and sometimes you do nothing, cold and unwelcoming.  The origins of the handshake were to drop your shield in peace, showing that you weren’t going to attempt to kill the other guy.  With murder rates dropping in Canada have we reached a place in history where salutation needs to be reinvented?

Men of Canada, what do you do?  Where are you on the salutation scale for bodily touch?  And for those of you who don’t embrace, why not?

Vacations and Canada’s Work Ethic

Courtesy of Vinay Shivakumar and Flickr's Creative Commons

Congratulations, Canada! Your people take fewer holidays than folks in any other nation on Earth. Even China. That’s right, we here in the Great White North work more hours than people in a country that is in possession of a socio-political ideology that fuses hyper-capitalism and neo-communism.

Wow. Just writing that paragraph made me tired. I need a vacation.

Recently in up-and-coming “newspaper” the The Globe and Mail, John Ibbitson wrote a piece called “We work hard, they enjoy life” – the columnist not only showcases how far behind Canadians are from the global average of vacation days (which is just under 30), but Ibbitson also outlines that, according to a 2010 Ipsos/Reuters poll, less than 60% of Canadians actually make full use of our paltry number of vacation days. A study by the human capital consulting firm Mercer found that, on average, Canadian employers offer a meager minimum of 10 vacation days and just nine statutory holidays. China offers up two more holidays, the Americans are given about 15 days of vacation, and nearly 90% of the French use up all of their 40 days of vacation per year.

Unreal.

This got me thinking about productivity. There are quite literally millions of opinions and thousands of articles and blog posts on the subject and, as a hopefully productive leader of Canada’s experiential learning community, I felt it was important to explore this topic further.

Courtesy of Woodleywonderworks and Flickr's Creative Commons

I love the rumour/fact that the French are in possession of the most productive economy on the planet. The argument that the French get the most done while spending the least amount of time at work was recently put forward by Business Insider‘s John Carney and Vincent Fernando. The Wall Street Journal and MSNBC, however, counter with some solid arguments about American productivity – not only do Americans spend more time at work, but they also produce more wealth-per-person than anywhere else.

Look.

Whether true productivity comes from France or America it is pretty darn clear that it does not come from Canada. In fact, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Canada has been on a bit of a productivity slide lately. This idea has been more recently affirmed by the The Star. We collectively contribute to billions of dollars in lost productivity each year because of illness (coming to work when we’re sick and/or hurting ourselves by working too much), mental health (burning out from the stress of what we do for a living), and not being able to clone Kurt Heinrich.

The logic of Spock is not needed to determine that our vacation days – or lack thereof – have something to do with our could-be-a-heckuvalot-better levels of productivity.

On my own I can’t change Canada’s number of statutory holidays. Only you writing to the most powerful man in the country, Steve Nash, can begin to solve this problem. What I can offer are some peer-reviewed and experientially proven strategies for making people happy. Because happy workers are productive workers. Here are some options to explore.

Let the record show that any idea must jive with the values, mission and service standards of the company (e.g. if your clients are on site at nine o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night for seven days a week then it doesn’t make sense to arrive at eleven o’clock in the morning and work until six o’clock, right?) and the fairness of any decision should apply across all units. And, let’s face it, ideas like these are way more applicable for nimble organizations, as the scalability of “dogs in the office” at, say, the University of British Columbia is pretty darn unrealistic and, if poorly rolled out, could quite possibly result in over 12,000 canines on campus at the same time. Such a thing could take the adorableness of puppies at work down a few notches.

So there it is. Simple ideas can make people happy. And if people are happy we’ll be more productive. And if we’re more productive then maybe – just maybe – Canada will earn one or two more vacation days!

Remembering Jack Layton

[Editor's Note: in 2006 I hosted an event that was playfully called "Mervillemania" - in a nutshell, a few dozen friends camped-out on my parents' estate/compound in Merville, British Columbia during the August Long Weekend. One of my friends brought an orange tent to the celebration. He borrowed it from, as he called them, "Jack and Olivia" - they were his neighbours at the time - who happily offered up the shelter for their, and my, very urban friend. This simple, thoughtful and necessary gesture provides, I think, a wonderful window into Mr. Layton's sense of community. Speaking of community, his letter below offers some prompts and encouragement regarding how we can work together to make Canada's better].

August 20, 2011
Toronto, Ontario

Dear Friends,

Tens of thousands of Canadians have written to me in recent weeks to wish me well. I want to thank each and every one of you for your thoughtful, inspiring and often beautiful notes, cards and gifts. Your spirit and love have lit up my home, my spirit, and my determination.

Unfortunately my treatment has not worked out as I hoped. So I am giving this letter to my partner Olivia to share with you in the circumstance in which I cannot continue.

I recommend that Hull-Aylmer MP Nycole Turmel continue her work as our interim leader until a permanent successor is elected.

I recommend the party hold a leadership vote as early as possible in the New Year, on approximately the same timelines as in 2003, so that our new leader has ample time to reconsolidate our team, renew our party and our program, and move forward towards the next election.

A few additional thoughts:

To other Canadians who are on journeys to defeat cancer and to live their lives, I say this: please don’t be discouraged that my own journey hasn’t gone as well as I had hoped. You must not lose your own hope. Treatments and therapies have never been better in the face of this disease. You have every reason to be optimistic, determined, and focused on the future. My only other advice is to cherish every moment with those you love at every stage of your journey, as I have done this summer.

To the members of my party: we’ve done remarkable things together in the past eight years. It has been a privilege to lead the New Democratic Party and I am most grateful for your confidence, your support, and the endless hours of volunteer commitment you have devoted to our cause. There will be those who will try to persuade you to give up our cause. But that cause is much bigger than any one leader. Answer them by recommitting with energy and determination to our work. Remember our proud history of social justice, universal health care, public pensions and making sure no one is left behind. Let’s continue to move forward. Let’s demonstrate in everything we do in the four years before us that we are ready to serve our beloved Canada as its next government.

To the members of our parliamentary caucus: I have been privileged to work with each and every one of you. Our caucus meetings were always the highlight of my week. It has been my role to ask a great deal from you. And now I am going to do so again. Canadians will be closely watching you in the months to come. Colleagues, I know you will make the tens of thousands of members of our party proud of you by demonstrating the same seamless teamwork and solidarity that has earned us the confidence of millions of Canadians in the recent election.

To my fellow Quebecers: On May 2nd, you made an historic decision. You decided that the way to replace Canada’s Conservative federal government with something better was by working together in partnership with progressive-minded Canadians across the country. You made the right decision then; it is still the right decision today; and it will be the right decision right through to the next election, when we will succeed, together. You have elected a superb team of New Democrats to Parliament. They are going to be doing remarkable things in the years to come to make this country better for us all.

To young Canadians: All my life I have worked to make things better. Hope and optimism have defined my political career, and I continue to be hopeful and optimistic about Canada. Young people have been a great source of inspiration for me. I have met and talked with so many of you about your dreams, your frustrations, and your ideas for change. More and more, you are engaging in politics because you want to change things for the better. Many of you have placed your trust in our party. As my time in political life draws to a close I want to share with you my belief in your power to change this country and this world. There are great challenges before you, from the overwhelming nature of climate change to the unfairness of an economy that excludes so many from our collective wealth, and the changes necessary to build a more inclusive and generous Canada. I believe in you. Your energy, your vision, your passion for justice are exactly what this country needs today. You need to be at the heart of our economy, our political life, and our plans for the present and the future.

And finally, to all Canadians: Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one – a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity. We can build a prosperous economy and a society that shares its benefits more fairly. We can look after our seniors. We can offer better futures for our children. We can do our part to save the world’s environment. We can restore our good name in the world. We can do all of these things because we finally have a party system at the national level where there are real choices; where your vote matters; where working for change can actually bring about change. In the months and years to come, New Democrats will put a compelling new alternative to you. My colleagues in our party are an impressive, committed team. Give them a careful hearing; consider the alternatives; and consider that we can be a better, fairer, more equal country by working together. Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.

All my very best,

Jack Layton.

Jack Layton