Engage Nova Scotia survey shows we value life quality over economic growth

Perhaps we're richer than we think in the quest for the good life

This is part of a five-week series between CBC's Mainstreet and Engage Nova Scotia, which will feature highlights of what Engage Nova Scotia heard when it asked 1,000 Nova Scotians about their attitudes to the province, its challenges and our openness to change.

The following is written by Danny Graham, the chief engagement officer of Engage Nova Scotia:

Last Thursday I received an email from a friend who was prompting a few of us to consider, "What's important in life?" and "What makes for a good life?" He included a link to a TED talk by Prof. Robert Waldinger. He oversees an acclaimed 75-year Harvard University study about what makes us happy and healthy throughout our lives.

The professor said most people believe that money and fame will make them happy, but the simple secret to happiness and good health is the quality of our personal relationships.

We sometimes look to other people and other places to imagine the "good life," without considering what a good life really means, or even the richness of what we already have. As we consider the significant economic and social challenges facing Nova Scotia, I wonder whether, to paraphrase the Bank of Nova Scotia, "We're richer than we think."

We asked 1,000 Nova Scotians, on a scale of one to 10, to rate the degree to which we should measure Nova Scotia's success by the growth in our economy. Then, separately, we asked them to rate the value of measuring success by the improvement in our quality of life. The results are telling.


Engage Nova Scotia asked if growth is the best way to measure success.

Engage Nova Scotia asked if growth is the best way to measure success.

Many people preferred the quality of life focus.

Many people preferred the quality of life focus.

Clearly, Nova Scotians believe that both measures are important. But more of them give higher marks to the importance of quality of life.

This discussion is, arguably, at the heart of the fundamental tension amongst passionate Nova Scotians who are calling for a better future. We live in a place of unparalleled beauty, charm, community and intrinsic features — quality of life values that are often hard to measure. And at the same time it is a place that has failed to keep pace with the economic growth of comparable provinces and states in North America.

Ultimately, this weakness may challenge our ability to maintain, let alone improve, the standards of health care, education and infrastructure support we have always enjoyed.

The tug about this issue exposes what is special about our province. We want to be fiscally healthy and compete in the world economy, but without forsaking what's exceptional about what we already have.

We asked the question directly in our research: do you believe we can grow our economy without losing what makes Nova Scotia special? Some 88 per cent of Nova Scotians believe that we can. Only four per cent believe we can't.


Engage Nova Scotia found balancing both is the challenge.

Engage Nova Scotia found balancing both is the challenge.

In recent decades, a variety of tools have emerged to help consider the balance between economic growth and quality of life. In fact, our region pioneered this approach through the outstanding work of GPI Atlantic and their Genuine Progress Index.

Studies have consistently shown a high correlation between economic growth and general wellbeing, but as we (Engage Nova Scotia) argued in our submission to the Ivany Commission, economic growth should not be seen a proxy for social progress or the advancement of wellbeing generally.

Focusing on economic growth alone, in isolation of addressing the inter-related social, cultural and environmental challenges we face, only addresses part of the equation. Social progress and economic progress are intertwined. Improved health and education drive long-term economic growth, for example; economic growth, in turn, supports the enhancement of health and education.

The OECD Your Better Life Index, the Community Foundation of Nova Scotia's Vital Signs reports, the Social Progress Index and the Canadian Index of Wellbeing's How Are Canadians Really Doing? reports are breaking ground with data like that in the graph below.

Trends in the Canadian Index of well being.


Where would we go if our enduring public policy questions were ones like, "What makes for a good life for Nova Scotians?" or "How do we improve our wellbeing?"

Everyone's answers to these questions will be different, but they undoubtedly make more room for the importance of:

  • a thriving creative culture
  • successful local food/prosperity initiatives
  • better support for children in the early years
  • building hub locations in rural communities

This perspective doesn't diminish the need to address the significant structural challenges facing our economy — urgently. Rather it is a call to make sure our aim reflects what Nova Scotians ultimately desire — a better quality of life, supported by a healthier economy.

Danny Graham is the chief engagement officer of Engage Nova Scotia, an unaffiliated, province-wide charitable organization that is working to cultivate engagement, catalyze change and support the emergence of a new Nova Scotia narrative.

Engage aspires to a future in which we better understand ourselves and our situation; we are more collaborative, inclusive and embracing of change; and where more people are stepping up with greater ability to improve our shared quality of life.

This article was originally posted on cbc.ca/news/ on May 2, 2016. Reposted with permission.


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