The good life: Felix Cheung - who studies well-being - among University of Toronto’s 33 new or renewed Canada Research Chairs 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 University of Toronto 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 University of Toronto, 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 University of Toronto 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 University of Toronto 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 "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 University of Toronto 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 University of Toronto:
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
Omar F. Khan of the Institute of Biomedical Engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, tier two in nucleic acid therapeutics
Renewed Canada Research Chairs
Mikko Taipale of the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomedical Research in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, tier two in functional proteomics and proteostasis
Institute of Biomedical Engineering Leah Cowen Sunnybrook Health Sciences Temerty Faculty of Medicine Unity Health Donnelly Centre for Cellular & Biomolecular Research Canada Research Chairs Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Dalla Lana School of Public Health Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering Faculty of Arts & Science Hospital for Sick Children Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy Physics University of Toronto Scarborough University Health Network Women’s College Hospital
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