Optimistic notes from Victoria's new mayor on the politics of happiness.
If you're happy and you know it, run the city
Lisa Helps says she is “ever an optimist.” The newly-elected mayor of Victoria is less than half a year into her first term, but she believes that she and her government can change things for the better, despite many people’s deeply-entrenched view of B.C.'s capital city as a place that never changes.
Helps has carried her roots in community organizing to her new job as mayor by convening community drop-ins at her office every second Friday morning. She describes one session where the group talked about homelessness. “A guy put up his hand and said, ‘I am so tired of being homeless. I am so tired of sleeping in parks...’ and a woman stood up next and she said, ‘I'm really frustrated because there are people sleeping in the park near my house.’ And then a conversation happened,” she says.
She wants to involve more people in conversations about the day-to-day business of the city, and then translate those conversations into action. "My job is to take the ideas, bring them to council, or bring them to staff, and implement them. And that's my commitment," she says.
Early last month, Helps participated in a conversation about the intersection of happiness and politics at the Museum of Vancouver. The dialogue, which was part of an ongoing exhibit called The Happy Show exploring what makes us happy and why, asked Mayor Helps and happiness expert John Helliwell to consider two fundamental questions: Can politics make us happier? Can politicians create happiness through policy-making?
Megaphone sat down with the mayor after the talk to ask her about convincing people to believe in politics and how housing insecurity and homelessness affect happiness in Victoria.
While she's an optimist, she says getting voted into office was hardly a walk in the park. “I need to remember the happy parts because it was really brutal,” she says. “The happy part about my campaign is that many of those 7,000 new voters were brought to the polls by people who were on Team Helps. What made me unhappy, particularly in the last two weeks leading up to the election, particularly when it appeared that I was actually going to win, was all of the attacks.”
She wants to do politics differently—and, in the process, foster a happier political landscape and local citizenry. “I think it's possible to ask questions of candidates that draw out their policy positions that aren't mean or mean-spirited,” she says. “The only way to do politics differently is not to leave it to us, the politicians; we'll do a bad job. There are way more voters than there are politicians, and that's where the conversation needs to change.”
Here are excerpts from our conversation.
On whether it’s a local government’s responsibility to make people happier:
“I think governments have a responsibility to give people the tools they need to create happiness, to work together, to foster community. Governments can't ‘do for;’ they have to ‘do with.’
“I think that people will be happiest if we give them the tools to deliver for themselves. And that's really a complete shift in how local governments do business.
“People can be happy when we give them the tools, give them the support, get the heck out of the way, and then go and celebrate their successes when they happen.”
On convincing skeptics that politics—and politicians—impact their day-to-day happiness:
“I don't think you can convince people; I think you just have to walk alongside people as they discover for themselves. The shelter in Victoria, the main shelter where people go who don't have homes, is called Our Place. And I've been spending a lot of time there, in circles, talking with people, engaging them about their ideas, and they're like, the mayor's sitting here with us? And all of a sudden politics look different. It's not because I had to convince them to do anything differently.
“During the election, Our Place organized an all-candidates debate. It was packed. And then we had an early polling station at Our Place so people could vote. So it's not about convincing, it's about creating opportunities.”
On what it’s like to see people change their minds:
“You know, we talk about happiness or a ‘eureka’ moment. That's exactly what it is. When you see someone—therewere people at [a strategic plan] town hall meeting who were like, ‘I've never set foot in City Hall except to pay a parking ticket.’ And then they're up at the podium talking about their ideas. It's thrilling to see those moments of conversion.”
On whether Victoria is a happy city:
“I think it's a happy city. I think our problem is that we live in paradise and we think ‘Oh, it's already perfect here and we don't need to do anything more,’ so there's no sense of urgency. So I think Victoria is happy, but that's just a thought. What we're going to start to do is measure well-being, subjective well-being, and then we'll know: are we actually happy? What do we need to work on?”
On how housing insecurity impacts happiness:
“[Long-term housing insecurity and homelessness]: it's got to have terrible effects, not just on subjective well-being but sense of self, and sense of how do I function in the world.
“Making Victoria more affordable is one of our objectives, and one of the first things we did is struck a task force. Within two months, they're going to deliver concrete recommendations to council to make housing more affordable using creative and innovative approaches.
“So people who are homeless, under-housed, and poor, they can't possibly be well. We need to create the [social] context for well-being, and housing security is part of that.”
On the light at the end of the tunnel for people who are homeless and precariously housed:
“I think people won't believe in it until they see it. There's been a lot of talk, but I have asked our staff to come up with a tent city, a micro-housing community...that's not housing, but it's a least a place to put your stuff for the day and sleep peacefully. So I think if we can get that off the ground for the summer, that'll show a strong signal that we're doing things differently.”
On how her work in community activism informs her new role as mayor:
“I think I'm a community activist with a different hat on.I wouldn't say activist, I would say community organizer. I think the mayor is the chief community organizer, and I have lots of resources at my disposal, and I would say that it's my community organizing background that has allowed me to step into this role and continue to organize the community.”
On the brightest spots in Victoria’s future:
“Four years from now, after one term of this council that has this vision, things will look very different. We'll have the ability for eight-year-olds to get on a bicycle in whatever neighbourhood and get to whatever neighbourhood they need by themselves. There will be more affordable housing. The thought that makes me happiest is that finally, we're taking action together.”