Wellbeing in Canada

Collectively, this index helps us to determine trends in our overall quality of life, giving us a powerful tool for action.

The Right Honourable David Johnston - PC, CC, CMM, COM, CD, FRSC, FRCPSC; Former Governor General of Canada; Former President, University of Waterloo

Understanding the problem

Canada, like most countries, lacks a single, national instrument for tracking and reporting on our overall quality of life. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was never designed or intended to be a measure of social progress, or quality of life. It is simply a calculation of the value of all goods and services produced in a country in one year. Even the 'father of GDP', Nobel laureate Simon Kuznets, recognized that "the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income as defined by the GDP."

Over time, GDP has emerged as a surrogate for wellbeing. As the central measure of what we call productivity, GDP is guiding economic and social policies, but it does not necessarily result in us becoming better off as a nation. That's a big problem.

As a measurement of national income, GDP doesn't distinguish between activities that are good and those that are bad for our society. Think of GDP as a giant calculator with an addition but no subtraction button. Activities like smoking, drinking to excess, building jails and hiring police to deal with crime, destroying green lands to build sprawling subdivisions, over-harvesting our natural resources to the point of jeopardizing their sustainability, using fossil fuels that pollute our air and heat up our planet – all these activities propel GDP upward.

At the same time, GDP fails to include a host of beneficial activities like the value of unpaid housework, child care, volunteer work and leisure time, because they take place outside of the formal marketplace. Nor does it make subtractions for activities that heat up our planet, pollute our air and waterways, or destroy farmlands, wetlands and old-growth forests. The notion of sustainability – ensuring that precious resources are preserved for future generations – doesn't enter the equation.

In order for wellbeing to improve in this country, we first need to track and report on wellbeing indicators so we can better understand the root causes of our current quality of life. This is where the CIW is useful.

A made-in-Canada solution with disruptive potential

The CIW fills a large gap in the Canadian dialogue about public policy making. It helps build a dialogue that goes beyond what Gross Domestic Product (GDP), as a purely economic measure, can tell us about our wellbeing.

The CIW distinguishes between activities that are beneficial and those that are harmful to our overall wellbeing. It treats beneficial activities as assets and harmful ones as deficits – providing a more accurate accounting of the wellbeing of Canadians. Under the framework, "less is often (though not always) better" – less crime, less pollution, less tobacco, and living longer and better all drive the CIW upwards.

The CIW national index:

  • distinguishes between good things like health and clean air, and bad things like sickness and pollution;
  • promotes volunteer work and unpaid care-giving as social goods, and overwork and stress as social deficits;
  • puts a value on educational achievement, early childhood learning, economic and personal security, a clean environment, and social and health equity; and
  • values a better balance between investment in health promotion and spending on illness treatment.

Our findings

Since 1994, GDP has been rising several times faster than the CIW. Our wellbeing consistently lags behind GDP, demonstrating what we already intuitively know, and now have evidence to support: a good life is not just about our economy. Over time, our economic performance is clearly outpacing the things that really matter to our wellbeing.

The CIW provides a revealing and comprehensive analysis of how we’re really doing in the areas of our lives that matter most. And because of the way the multi-dimensional CIW set of social, economic, and environmental indicators connect and interact, improving wellbeing in one key area has positive impacts in many others. This is an evidence-based, systems approach. 

What others are doing

Explore what others are doing by visiting the right sidebar links to initiatives across the country.