What determines our quality of life? Our well-being? Our happiness? I had the good fortune recently to ask an expert: Dr. Alex Michalos. He has devoted years of study to these questions. And he has just produced a mammoth work, the “Encyclopedia of Quality of Life and Well-Being Research.”
I sat down with Michalos over coffee before he and his wife relocated from Brandon to Ottawa earlier this month. (Michalos is married to Dr. Deborah Poff, the outgoing president of Brandon University). It was a fascinating conversation. Michalos is passionate about discovering not only the philosophical meaning of the good life, but also the statistics that measure the well-being of individuals and societies.
His passion has resulted in the 12-volume encyclopedia. But you won’t be putting the publication on your bookshelf or e-reader. Even the electronic version costs $7,500. Instead, this is a reference work for researchers in universities, governments and public policy institutes. (Michalos has given a copy to the BU library).
So, even if we laypeople won’t be casually browsing through it, we can appreciate that this encyclopedia is there. We can feel better knowing that this academic research is going on. After all, what is more important than our happiness, our well-being and our quality of life?
Michalos brings a multi-disciplinary perspective to his work. His doctorate is in philosophy; he is a BU adjunct professor in that subject. He is also a professor emeritus in political science with the University of Northern British Columbia. He has taught sociology as well. He has received numerous accolades, including the Order of Canada. Michalos sums up his work with a simple declaration: “I’m a scholar.”
Michalos describes the encyclopedia as an “exploration of what is true, beautiful and morally good.” When I asked him about his work, Michalos began by talking about the ancient Greeks. At the heart of their philosophy was the search for what was morally good. And how being morally virtuous would make the best life for a person and those around them.
The encyclopedia brings modern research to this ancient quest. Michalos orchestrated the work of some 1,800 academic authors. They generated more than 2,000 articles on hundreds of topics.
Michalos laboured for five years on the encyclopedia. It has been very well received. But he doesn’t want to sit back now; he would like to produce a second edition. (During our chat, he noted the link between happiness and meaningful work. It looks like he has found this for himself).
In a second edition, he would ask all the authors to update their articles. He also would try to get new submissions in several areas. He has identified six topics that need more research: religion, environment, sustainable development, sports, sex and art. There are some surprises. Like art: hasn’t it been around for about as long as human society? Or sex: hasn’t it been around for — well — forever? Researchers, get busy!
At one point, I asked Michalos what stood out from his findings. Was there one thing that we could do to improve our well-being? I was thinking about what we might do differently, for example, as parents, as consumers, as citizens? Or how businesses might change? Or which issue governments might address?
His answer caught me off guard. “The biggest mistake people make is looking for a silver bullet, the one thing,” Michalos said. Instead, we should understand that human beings and societies are complex. That everything is connected and influenced by everything else. He has been working on a general hypothesis — what he calls a “multi-discrepancies theory” — to measure and explain it all.
So, everything is complicated. And yet, there is also a core simplicity. As our conversation wrapped up, Michalos circled back to where he had started. “The things that make life good are very similar to what the ancient Greeks described 2,500 years ago,” he said. We are looking at the same themes, but today, “we’re measuring them better.”
“A lot of things change, but a lot of things that make life good don’t change,” Michalos concluded. “Good friends, good food, good community ...”
» David McConkey is an active citizen. Contact him and read previous columns at davidmcconkey.com