Measuring wellbeing

“How are Canadians really doing?” This is the question posed by the first report of the Institute of Wellbeing. Why does it think that we don’t “really” understand Canadians’ wellbeing? Because GDP remains the most common measure, despite the fact that it wasn’t originally intended to be used as such, and that it implies a very narrow idea of what makes life good. Spending on tobacco, natural and human-made disasters, crime and accidents all make GDP go up, but they are hardly signs that Canadians are better off. The Report unveils a better measure, the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW), in the hope of re-centering public policy and discourse on a more relevant set of priorities.

So how does one identify the metrics of wellbeing? Getting it wrong means introducing a different set of distortions into policy discourse. The Institute’s answer: consult with Canadians about what matters to them and their families, their aspirations for their communities, the types of information they felt would help them understand whether things were getting better or worse and whom to hold accountable. The Institute condensed its findings into eight domains:

Simon Kuznets, the inventor of GDP, once said The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income as defined by the GDP.
  • Arts, culture and recreation
  • Civic engagement
  • Community vitality
  • Education
  • Environment
  • Healthy populations
  • Living standards
  • Time use

The report presented the Institute’s findings on three domains: living standards, healthy populations and community vitality. In my opinion, most of the findings were (obviously) very important, but not qualitatively different from previous studies. For example:

  • GDP has increased since 1971, but inequality has increased and poverty remains the same;
  • Five groups—lone parents, unattached individuals aged 45-64, recent immigrants (of which ¾ have been visible minorities since 2000), persons with work-limiting disabilities and Aboriginal peoples living off-reserve—represent one-quarter of the population but 62% of people in persistent low-income.

What I think is especially innovative about the CIW is the emphasis that a holistic understanding of wellbeing should set our policy priorities: that social or environmental concerns are not a separate issue from the economy and vice versa. This, of course, is the name of the game at SiG@MaRS, where we’re trying to pioneer a way of doing business with a blended, more holistic, idea of value.

The reports and other cool information are available to the public at Stay tuned: as the Institute releases reports for other domains, it plans to extensively account for the interactions between them.

Chris Evans

Chris joined MaRS from McMaster University for the summer. He worked in the social entrepreneurship program. See more…