What makes happiness?

Sing this out loud: "If You're Happy And You Know It, Clap Your Hands!"

Do you feel happier?

John Helliwell, one of the world's leading happiness researchers, said he often makes the quirky request when speaking to people about happiness.

"I get them singing together and clapping and ask them if they're happier after than before," said Helliwell, a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia's Vancouver School of Economics.

"Typically they are," he added,matter-of-factly. "Because it's just doing something together."

The importance of social cohesion and a sense of belonging on boosting general well-being is just one of the themes up for discussion at a happiness symposium taking place in Vancouver this week.

The event will bring together municipal planners, policy makers, researchers and community members to share anecdotes and best practices aimed at fostering happiness in cities, communities, the workplace and even at home.

"The science of well-being has now proceeded far enough that there are enough interesting experiments and things to try at the local level," said Helliwell, one of the main presenters at Tuesday's symposium.

The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research is organizing the event.

Statistics Canada analyses to be presented on Tuesday show that smaller-scale communities are more conducive to general well-being, said Helliwell.

The main reason is the quality of the social relationships that exist in tighter neighbourhoods, he explained.

"To build happier big cities requires studying and developing the kinds of linkages that happen automatically in smaller communities."

Examples include urban gardens, encouraging volunteerism and making public facilities more accessible to community groups.

In the city we're better off when we treat the elevator as a vertical sidewalk, he said, describing what is so often a daily experience of downtown life as "a social event waiting to happen."

It all comes down to the three-part secret of happiness, he said: trust, generosity and collaboration.

Helliwell cited anecdotal reports of the Calgary floods precipitating the highest levels of perceived happiness in the city, because the disaster provided Calgarians with the chance to work together and donate their time and expertise.

Helliwell helped conduct a study that involved dropping wallets around Toronto to see how many would be returned. While a survey revealed only a quarter of respondents had faith lost billfolds would make their way back, a full 80 per cent of the dropped wallets were returned.

"People are routinely too pessimistic about the benevolence of their fellow citizens."

Also presenting in Vancouver this week is Meik Wiking, head of the Happiness Research Institute, a Danish think-tank.

Denmark has topped the United Nations' World Happiness Report since the publication's inception in 2012.

Wiking explained how satisfaction with social relationships is one of the best predictors of people's happiness, beating out health, work-life balance, sense of community and purpose.

Research conducted by the institute on a small city on the outskirts of Copenhagen revealed that socially isolated people had happiness levels akin to residents of poor, politically unstable states, he said.

He also said that spring and summer are the worst times of year for lonely people.

"Lonely people feel the loneliest because it's that time of year where you can see the rest of the city engage in relationships, barbecues, hanging out at the park, at the beach and so on," Wiking said, adding that people tended to stay indoors in the winter.

"All the groups, all the networks, all the relationships you are not a part of are more in your face during spring and summer."

The Vancouver symposium takes place two days before the release of the 2015 World Happiness Report.


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