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Quebeckers celebrate St. Jean Baptiste Day on the Plains of Abraham in 2009.

Francis Vachon/francis vachon The Globe and Mail

Think of it as the echo of the Quiet Revolution.

A dramatic rise in the satisfaction of Quebeckers has transformed them from the most disgruntled of Canadians to the most contented in less than three decades, according to new research.

Canadians rank among the happiest people in the world. But it turns out Quebeckers are happier than the rest of us, according to a report released Tuesday by the Ottawa-based Centre for the Study of Living Standards, based on an analysis of satisfaction levels reported to Statistics Canada.

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Four of the five happiest cities in Canada are also in Quebec – Quebec City, Gatineau, Trois-Rivières and Montreal.

"According to this measure, there's almost no happier, country-sized place in the world than Quebec," noted Christopher Barrington-Leigh, a McGill University economist who's studied the phenomenon of rising satisfaction levels in Quebec.

In a recent paper that traced changing attitudes back to the mid-1980s, Prof. Barrington-Leigh concluded that the shift is largely societal and cultural as Quebec has steadily become less like the rest of Canada. There's less income inequality, less religion and much stronger family and social supports than elsewhere in the country – the result of higher public spending.

And as tensions over language and sovereignty have generally eased, Quebeckers have become "more secure about their identity within Quebec and Canada," Prof. Barrington-Leigh said in an interview.

"It may be that Quebecois are now more at peace with their government, their identities and with each other, including across linguistic and religious lines," he wrote in his paper.

Economist John Helliwell of the University of British Columbia, an expert on well-being, said it would take a doubling of income levels to replicate what's happened in Quebec. "It's big and it's important," he said. "Quebeckers feel more at home in their own province than they did before."

But Quebec pollster Jean-Marc Léger says the Quebec happiness phenomenon is really much simpler. "For Quebeckers it's what we call the 'joie de vivre,'" said Mr. Léger, who's been tracking public opinion in Quebec for 26 years. "It's the first value for everyone. They work to have fun after that. It's the opposite of the rest of Canada."

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Prof. Barrington-Leigh acknowledged the recent return of tensions over sovereignty with the election of the Parti Quebecois and growing concern over corruption and high debt levels. "Quebec is going to have to have a conversation about this," he said.

Based on age, the happiest Canadians are 12 to 19 years old, while the least satisfied are seniors, according to the Centre for the Study of Living Standards report.

Overall, the study found that 92.3 per cent of Canadians aged 12 or more say they're satisfied or very satisfied with their lives. That's up from an already high average satisfaction level of 91.3 per cent recorded in 2003 – a small but "statistically significant" increase, said Andrew Sharpe, the centre's executive director.

Those numbers put Canadians among the happiest people in the world. A February, 2012, Gallup poll ranked Canadians second only to the Danes on the happy meter, up from fifth place in 2007-08. Americans ranked 17th in the same survey.

UBC's Prof. Helliwell said Canada has a lot of what makes people happy, and it's not mainly about money. It's about personal relationships, trust in neighbours and institutions, strong communities, as well as access to opportunity, he said.

"All these other things that are typically ignored," Prof. Helliwell said, "but people deep down understand they are more important."

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About the Author
National Business Correspondent

Barrie McKenna is correspondent and columnist in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau. From 1997 until 2010, he covered Washington from The Globe's bureau in the U.S. capital. During his U.S. posting, he traveled widely, filing stories from more than 30 states. Mr. McKenna has also been a frequent visitor to Japan and South Korea on reporting assignments. More

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