Does economic growth contribute to happiness? With his research project on population well-being, the University of Toronto’s Felix Cheung hopes to find out.
An assistant professor in the department of psychology in the Faculty of Arts & Science, Cheung calls the economic-happiness question one of the longest standing debates in his field.
He cites, as an example, previous research he did on Hong Kong that found relatively low levels of life satisfaction despite high per capita GDP and long life expectancies – two common measures of well-being used by governments. And he notes the same may be increasingly true in Canada after nearly two years battling COVID-19.
“At minimum, our well-being is not improving,” he says. “That is enough to consider: Is our policy aligned with what Canadians want in life?”
Cheung also wants to explore how governments can “can actually spend our economic growth to buy happiness,” noting that it’s not economic prosperity so much as the way it’s distributed that may be most important.
“One of the chords behind the rallying cry of defund the police, I think, is asking us as a community to rethink how we spend government expenditure to promote collective well-being for everyone.”
Cheung is one of the 33 U of T faculty members to receive a new or renewed Canada Research Chair in the most recent round of appointments announced Wednesday (see the full list below). The program supports exceptional work across a wide variety of fields. At U of T, that includes everything from marine epidemiology and precision medicine to research into sustainable bioproducts.
At the same time, the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) – in collaboration with the CRC program – announced support for Cheung and one other U of T researcher through its John R. Evans Leaders Fund (JELF), which helps universities pay for laboratories and equipment. The second researcher, Ji Young Youn, is an assistant professor in the department of molecular genetics in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and a scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children.
Professor Shaf Keshavjee of the University Health Network and the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, also received $24 million in support through the New Frontiers in Research Fund for his project, The Next Frontier in Transplantation: Ex vivo Strategies to Repair and Rebuild Organs.
“I want to extend my congratulations to all the U of T researchers who were selected as a new chair or had their chair renewed – as well those who received funding from the John R. Evans Leaders Fund and the New Frontiers in Research Fund,” says Leah Cowen, vice-president, research and innovation, and strategic initiatives.
“The federal government’s ongoing support of important work through the Canada Research Chairs and other programs plays a key role in allowing our researchers to advance knowledge and foster innovation across a wide variety of fields.”
The CRC program, established in 2000, invests up to $295 million annually to recruit and retain top minds in Canada. It supports research in engineering, natural sciences, health sciences, humanities and social sciences.
In Cheung’s case, he plans to use tier-two Canada Research Chair funding to study the determinants, consequences and policy relevance of population well-being by using a multidisciplinary approach. He plans to explore three lines of research: What contributes to population well-being and what can be done to create a more satisfying life for a given population? What are the desirable consequences of having a more satisfied society? And, finally, does the public support the idea of using well-being as a major policy indicator?
He says his work was inspired by observations he made while living in Hong Kong, where he noted that high per capita GDP and a long life expectancy didn’t appear to be making people happy.
“I could see people were living life without necessarily having a purpose,” he says. “This observation was later confirmed by my own data analysis.”
In fact, he found that people in the region lived the least satisfying life in the developed world. “Hong Kong is a cautionary tale for the rest of the world,” he says. “A long and prosperous life is not necessarily a good life.”
Cheung joined U of T in July 2020 and continued his research on the topic. “There are so many world-class experts here from different disciplines,” he says. “I benefit from this a lot because [the concept of] well-being is so multifaceted.”
His proposal for the Canada Research Chairs Program spans not only Ontario, but the whole country. He adds that the program’s support will allow him to take the first step in tackling his long-term goal: reimagining the way we measure societal progress.
“We need buy-in from different sectors – the public, government, businesses and non-government organizations,” he said. “This award is that initial buy-in that gives me hope that this is doable.”
He hopes his research can be used to measure well-being and how it’s distributed across age groups, gender, sexual orientation, as well as racial and ethnic groups.
“Only if we measure it can we make further decisions on how we want to allocate resources,” says Cheung, adding that such research can help identify populations where current policies aren’t increasing happiness.
“There is nothing stopping population well-being from becoming a major policy indicator in the next century because it reflects equality in our community that’s not currently being captured by existing policy indicators.”
Here are the new and renewed Canada Research Chairs at U of T:
New Canada Research Chairs
- Benjamin Blencowe of the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomedical Research in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, tier one in RNA biology and genomics
- David Burnes of the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, tier two in older adult mistreatment prevention
- Felix Cheung of the department of psychology in the Faculty of Arts & Science, tier two in population well-being
- Lihi Eder of the department of medicine in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and Women’s College Hospital, tier two in inflammatory rheumatic diseases
- Anna Heath of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and the Hospital for Sick Children, tier two in statistical trial design
- Omar F. Khan of the Institute of Biomedical Engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, tier two in nucleic acid therapeutics
- Thomas Kislinger of the department of medical biophysics in the in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and the University Health Network, tier one in cancer precision medicine
- Heather MacLean of the department of civil and mineral engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, tier one in sustainable systems and technology assessment
- Sonya MacParland of the department of laboratory medicine and pathobiology in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and the University Health Network, tier two in liver immunobiolog
- Kristin Musselman of the department of physical therapy in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, tier two in multi-morbidity and complex rehabilitation
- Daniel I. Posen of the department of civil and mineral engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, tier two in system-scale environmental impacts of energy and transport technologies
- Milica Radisic of the Institute of Biomedical Engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, tier one in organ-on-a-chip engineering
- Chao Wang of the department of immunology in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, tier two in immunometabolism in neuroinflammation
- Tania Watts of the department of immunology in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, tier one in anti-viral immunity
- Ning Yan of the department of chemical engineering and applied chemistry in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, tier one in sustainable bioproducts
- Ji-Young Youn of the department of molecular genetics in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and the Hospital for Sick Children, tier two in membraneless organelle proteomics
Renewed Canada Research Chairs
- Ana Andreazza of the department of pharmacology and toxicology in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, tier two in molecular pharmacology and mood disorders
- Daniel Bender of the department of historical and cultural studies at U of T Scarborough, tier one in food and culture
- Robert Bonin of the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, tier two in sensory plasticity
- Brian Connelly of the department of management at U of T Scarborough, tier two in integrative perspectives on personality
- Shelley Craig of the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, tier two in sexual and minority youth
- Daniel De Carvalho of the department of medical biophysics in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and the University Health Network, tier two in cancer epigenetics and epigenetic therap
- Elizabeth Edwards of the department of chemical engineering and applied chemistry in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, tier one in anaerobic biotechnology
- Barbara Fallon of the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, tier two in child welfare
- Penney Gilbert of the Institute of Biomedical Engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, tier two in endogenous repair
- Martin Krkosek of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology in the Faculty of Arts & Science, tier two in marine epidemiology
- Warren Lee of the department of medicine in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and Unity Health Toronto, tier two in mechanisms of endothelial permeability
- Jeffrey Meyer of the department of psychiatry in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, tier one in the neurochemistry of major depressive disorder
- John Rubinstein of the department of biochemistry in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and the Hospital for Sick Children, tier one in electron cryomicroscopy
- Mikko Taipale of the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomedical Research in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, tier two in functional proteomics and proteostasis
- Bebhinn Treanor of the department of biological sciences at U of T Scarborough, tier two in spatially-resolved biochemistry
- Andrea Tricco of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and Unity Health Toronto, tier two in knowledge synthesis
- Amar Vutha of the department of physics in the Faculty of Arts & Science, tier two in precision atomic and molecular physics