John Helliwell

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John F. Helliwell, Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of British Columbia and Senior Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, is a fantastic example of what a passion for economics and a zeal to understand and improve the world can lead to. Research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research and the C.D Howe Institute as well as an active member of the National Statistics Council for the past 15 years, John’s research has not only contributed to major academic progress in areas such as international transactions, exchange rates or taxation but has also helped policy makers develop better and more efficient programs. In recent years, his interest for social capital and subjective well-being has lead him to co-direct (with George Akerlof) CIFAR’s program, Social Interactions, Identity and Well-Being, as well as collaborate with economists like Jeffrey Sachs on projects such as the World Happiness Report.

Happiness and its social context. What you learn from the data is that the material supports for life form only a small part of the story of what makes a good life. Instead, it is the social context in which you live and work that really supports high level life evaluations. This includes being able to trust in, having people to count on, and having opportunities to do things with and for other people in a supportive environment.

It was an outgrowth of my interest in social capital, which I acquired when I was for several years the Mackenzie King Visiting Professor of Canadian Studies at Harvard, at a time when Robert Putnam was beginning his studies into the sources and consequences of social capital. Towards the end of the 1990s we realized that to properly value social capital you had to have something broader than economic variables if you wanted to see the full impact of the social context. Hence I got drawn into the study of subjective wellbeing, and I have been drawn deeper ever since!

Yes. If subjective well-being had not initially appeared to provide a good yardstick for evaluating the quality of life, I would have soon turned elsewhere. But since it seemed so promising, I decided to work on improving the range and quality of subjective well-being data to support the emerging science of well-being. There was then almost no official international collection of data on subjective well-being. Much has since been accomplished, although there is still a long way to go. Since it took 60 years to develop good systems of national accounts for income and expenditure, I was expecting that progress towards broader accounting systems for human welfare would also take time. (If you think about Global Warming, for example, it probably took scientists at least 20 years to build the whole range of data and analysis required to monitor and analyze climate change. The study of subjective well-being is probably now about where the study of climate changes was 15 years ago, and has thus far not acquired anything like the same level of scientific interest and resources.)

I did two undergraduate degrees. I first studied Commerce here at UBC and then I had the chance of going to Oxford to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE). I thought my undergraduate degree was too narrow so I became a Philosophy specialist within PPE. Oxford Philosophy was at a high point at the time and I enjoyed it enormously.

After finishing my degree in PPE at Oxford I ended up accepting a position in the Canadian Civil Service. However, family illness instead drew me back to UBC for a year, where I did some graduate work in economics while also teaching a section of economic principles. At the end of that academic year, in mid-1962 the head of the Economics Department, John Young, took leave from UBC to become the Assistant Director of Research for the Royal Commission on Banking and Finance (RCBF), working from a base in Toronto, and he took me along to work with them. I worked with the RCBF over the summer and then went back to begin DPhil studies at Nuffield College in Oxford, thereafter going back and forth between Oxford and Toronto, for the RCBF, and then in 1964 and 1965 working on a similar basis, with the Ottawa-based Royal Commission on Taxation, and from 1965 on working part-time in the Bank of Canada to help build their economic modeling program. All three of these Canadian research projects fed directly into my D.Phil research and my teaching at Oxford, so the arrangement provided for me a very good way of combining teaching and research. Recruited back to UBC by Tony Scott, in 1967, I thereafter kept up the econometric modeling, commuting to the Bank of Canada from Vancouver instead of Oxford. UBC has ever since provided a matchless home base for my teaching and research, and for life.

I think my general preference is for breadth, and not depth at the undergraduate level. I found that I became a much more effective economist as I acquired a broader grounding in the human and social sciences. In my case I have found philosophy and psychology of special relevance when trying to understand and contribute to the inter-disciplinary science of subjective well-being. Everyone will have their own interests, and should develop capacities to follow them effectively. As Aristotle said, “your assumptions about human behavior are only useful if they match what goes on in the world”.

What has been by far the most valuable for me has been the chance I have had, over the past dozen years, and I hope for several years to come, to work with the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in helping to build an interdisciplinary and international team of scholars to study social interactions, identity and well-being. Those colleagues, and that support, have been vital in fuelling progress in the measurement and understanding of human progress.

There are several aspects of research that really interest me.  The first one is understanding more competently how the world works. The next one is finding out what might help it to work differently and better. Defining what is meant by better is what had drawn me into well-being research, since people’s evaluations of the quality of their own lives probably provide the most appropriate definition of what ‘better’ is. Next is the need to transfer the results of research to the people who can use it. That goes beyond the academic arena. Most of my lectures in recent years are, in fact, not to students or other professors, but to people outside the academic world. Communicating is enormously important. First of all it forces you to be relevant. It is one thing to say ‘here are the policy implications of my paper’, but it is a very different story to provide policy advice that takes into account the way people think and act. You need lots of collaboration with actors from the non-academic arena for the latter to happen.

Through well-being research I have discovered that everything goes better if it is done in groups and if it is fun! And that is how I always try to do things now.