Canadian Index of Wellbeing – the systems view of progress

The Canadian Index of Wellbeing results are out today. While we are drawn to the promise of “sunny days” in our country, and we are a fortunate nation, at this challenging historical moment, particularly in comparison to our neighbours, this is not the whole story of the quality of our lives. The CIW is a composite index, constructed through years of research drawn from across the country, that fills in this larger story. It allows us to take an aggregate look at our sense of wellbeing across the domains of community health, democratic engagement, community vitality, environment, leisure and culture, time use, education, and living standards, and compare how we are doing across these domains to how we are doing in terms of gross domestic product. Because the CIW has been operating for over a decade now, we can also compare our status across provinces (and a few towns, too) and over time.


The 1995 Atlantic Monthly article, “If GDP is up, why is America down?” awoke a new phase of more serious study and attention to the need for better proxy measures of quality of life and wellbeing, a role that was being played very badly by the composite measure of economic productivity, GDP. This work has penetrated even departments of economics around the world, and has generated high profile world forums and panels, such as the French government’s Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. Today’s release from the CIW shows that GDP continues to be a sorry proxy for the wellbeing of Canadians, yet continues to be a more significant focus of national effort, if we judge by Canada’s strong recovery from the 2008 recession in terms of GDP versus our skin-of-the-teeth recovery in terms of wellbeing. The story that the trend in the CIW domains tells is that, in order to ensure we could recover economically, Canadians have taken hits in terms of increasing income inequality, meaning that more Canadians can’t afford quality food and suitable housing, and most of us sacrificed our involvement in the arts, leisure, cultural activities, volunteering, and vacations, in an effort to get by or get ahead economically. Over the two decades covered by this research, Canadians are spending almost 30% less time with friends. Fewer of us get enough sleep – and this was already a minority of us in 1994.

These troubling trends are balanced, within these CIW results, by strong improvements in education. Nine in ten Canadians complete highschool and nearly one in three has a university degree. In the domain of community vitality, improving trends show that more Canadians feel that they belong, have friends they trust, and feel safe in their neighbourhoods, and fewer experience discrimination.

And trends in democratic participation, population health, and environmentally-sensitive lifestyles, are mixed. Given the increasing stressors to democracy, health, and environmental quality globally as well as within our country, these ambiguous trends need to be read as threats just as much as the trends of clearer decline.

The CIW does not mince words about the reasons for our threatened and declining wellbeing as a nation:

The single-minded pursuit of economic growth has largely defined public policy in Canada over the past several decades. Yet, while Canada can boast being one of the most prosperous countries in the world … we cannot boast that the wellbeing of Canadians has kept pace.

The plain language writing and clear, hard-hitting interpretation in the new CIW report in itself offers a sense of bolstered security against a rising tide of worries about our future. It is cathartic, somehow, as well as motivating, to have this to point to and move on with the work of crafting and living a more balanced, greener, more responsible future. Thinking of key leverage points in our national system, the CIW sinks its teeth into what a universal basic income could do for our wellbeing, across the board.

There are real synergistic possibilities within a universal basic income, both political and sectoral, on the ground. Down at the neighbourhood scale, other policy interventions offer potential to build upon our core building blocks of an educated population with a certain level of trust and belonging, in order to stop the loss of our precious time, health, and environmental stewardship to the pursuit of shortsighted economic targets. We are developing measures of wellbeing that can be assessed at the neighbourhood scale, in order to make the case stronger for building and maintaining the neighbourhoods we need to feel good in the stream of our lives, before we lose the very things we value most.

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