Does living in collectives make people happier? This Lethbridge prof intends to find out

A University of Lethbridge anthropologist will spend time this fall studying the happiness levels of people living in urban collectives in Vancouver and Japan, to see if they make people less lonely.

University of Lethbridge anthropologist to study happiness of urban collectives in Vancouver and Japan

At the Vancouver Co-housing Complex, people have private quarters but have the option of sharing a large common space that includes a lounge, dining room, yoga studio and kitchen. A University of Lethbridge anthropologist will spend time this fall studying the happiness levels of people living in urban collectives in Vancouver and Japan. (Vancouver Cohousing)

Professor Catherine Kingfisher agrees with the old Three Dog Night song lyric about how one is the loneliest number, so the Lethbridge anthropology professor is setting out to study urban collective living.

It's part of a reaction to recent rise of the field of happiness studies.

"Happiness became a really popular topic in popular culture and also academia," she said Monday in an interview with host Jennifer Keene on the Calgary Eyeopener

"There was the rise of happiness economics and positive psychology," she said.

"As an of the things I noticed was that happiness studies were overwhelmingly focused on the individual, which made sense since it emerged from positive psychology ... but it's incomplete from an anthropological perspective, because we live in social systems. We are social animals.

"So I got interested," she said, "in the idea of looking around to see what kind of models for well being are out there that are not focused exclusively on the individual, that actually locate happiness and well being — at least in part — in social relations."

How do you define happiness? That's one of the questions being asked by a professor from Lethbridge, Alta., who's studying urban collectives in Vancouver and Japan this fall.

This fall, the University of Lethbridge professor will study a pair of urban collectives, which she describes as being "intentional communities planned intentionally by people who want to interact more with other people/families within a complex.

"It can happen organically with roommates," she said, "but we're looking at communities designed architecturally for this."

One of the urban collectives is Quayside, in Vancouver. The other is in Japan. 

Kingfisher spent three years negotiating with each collective to spend eight weeks on each site, studying their happiness levels.

She says that both collectives arose out of similar motivations.

"The philosophies are pretty much the same (with both)," she said. "To have private space — but also [to] have [a sense of] community," rather than some of those emotional reactions we have come to associate with urban life such as loneliness, isolation and alienation.

Studying happiness

All of which raises a question: how do you study happiness?

Kingfisher says that's an issue for a different sort of expert.

"I'm not a psychologist," she said. "I don't do psychological studies, I'm not measuring happiness in this study at all. It's about looking at how these communities operate as potential models for well-being."

It was also very much a study focused on city life, where, according to a recent survey by Stats Canada, as many as 30 per cent of the population lives alone, which other experts have said is making a lot of us sicker and sadder.

Collective living a response to contemporary urban life

"There's one academic at Harvard," said Kingfisher, "who has argued that … living in these collectives is better for people's physical as well as psychological health, and that these communities are a response [to that].

"People who move into these communities, and certainly those who start them, have said something is wrong here."

"Our kids are in daycare, and old people are isolated and lonely, single people are isolated and lonely, we're consuming too much stuff — so why don't we pool our resources? Why don't we get together?

"Absolutely I would argue that these places are models for how to deal with some of our current social problems," she said, "but I am not about the business of measuring individual happiness."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener