How happy do you think Singaporeans are, on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being “very miserable, 10 being “very happy”)? The answers from the two co-founders of social enterprise Happiness Initiative are troubling, to say the least.
Simon Leow puts it at “6”; Sherman Ho gives it a “4”.
Both point to the annual World Happiness Report by the United Nations, which ranks the overall happiness levels of 156 countries. Singapore peaked at 22 in 2016. But then it fell to 24 in 2017, and then plunged to 34 in both the 2018 and 2019 reports. Its current rank is its worst showing since the UN started releasing its report in 2012.
The rankings are based on six key variables: gross domestic product per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and freedom from corruption. Mr Ho says: “It’s odd for Singapore to be placed at 34th. When you look at the study, we score extremely high for GDP, healthy life expectancy and freedom from corruption, compared to all the other countries. So why haven’t we cracked the top 20, as did many countries with high GDP and healthy life expectancies?”
The top three spots this year were occupied by Finland, Denmark and Norway. The United Kingdom with its Brexit woes came in at 15; the United States under a divisive president sits at 19. The worst performing countries were Afghanistan, Central African Republic and South Sudan.
Meanwhile, other studies emerging from within Singapore show depression on the rise among teenagers. From 2012 to 2017, the Institute of Mental Health saw an average of 2,400 new cases every year, or just over 46 new cases every week. At the other end of the age spectrum, the number of suicides among elderly Singaporeans aged 60 and above spiked at 129 in 2017, the highest recorded figure since suicide tracking begin in 1991 – even though overall suicide figures fell that year.
Mr Ho, a former commodities trader, and Mr Leow, a former junior college vice-principal, were concerned enough about these trends to quit their jobs and start Happiness Initiative in 2017, with the goal of promoting happiness and well-being through its various programmes. When the Happiness Initiative organised its first Happiness Film Festival last month showcasing stories of individuals searching for purpose and contentment, tickets were quickly snapped up. When Mr Ho and Mr Leow conducted short courses on how to be happier, these were almost instantly oversubscribed.
Mr Ho, 29, says: “A lot of people think they can be happier than they are now. When I talk to my friends from various industries, a number of them are frustrated. They work in different industries, but they each hate their jobs. They’re worried about money and they feel trapped. They don’t know how to solve it.”
But what’s causing this apparent unhappiness? On the surface, Singaporeans should be very satisfied with life here. GDP is high, unemployment is low. Security, healthcare and education are among the best in the world.
Happiness experts say that a high standard of living does not necessarily spell happiness. Satisfaction and well-being are issues that need to be dealt with on their own.
Last month, Sha-En Yeo and Veronica Chua started a new company called Happiness Scientists. It offers courses on positive psychology to schools, companies and organisations, teaching people to understand their emotions, find out what they want, and communicate those wants, among other things.
Ms Yeo and Ms Chua are, like Mr Leow, former school teachers who had become alarmed by the number of students suffering from stress, anxiety and low self-esteem. Like Mr Leow, they studied Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and wanted to share some of the hard science and statistics on happiness.
Ms Yeo says: “It’s been drummed into us from an early age that scholastic and career achievements equate with happiness. And so we headed straight towards those goals, ticked all those boxes, but then found it didn’t necessarily make us happy. We didn’t stop to ask ourselves: Do we like what we do? Are we engaged in the tasks we’ve taken on? Are we passionate about our work? We don’t give ourselves sufficient time and space to look into what we really want.”
The experts believe that somewhere along the way, Singaporeans have become enamoured of the “wrong narratives”. Other countries have their own concepts of joy and contentment: The Swedes, for instance, embrace the idea of lagom which means doing everything in moderation. The Danes believe in hygge, a feeling of being cosy and in the moment, whether alone or with friends.
“Singaporeans, on the other hand, have defined their psyche with one word – kiasu-ism (the idea of having more of everything and never losing out),” says Mr Leow. “We embrace the 5Cs as the Singapore dream – car, condominium, credit card, cash and country club. But none of those Cs spell contentment. In fact, if one of them did, I don’t think things would be where they are today.”
For tech-savvy hyper-connected Singaporeans, there is also the compounding issue of social media where one can see in real time what others are doing, eating or buying. Social comparison, the experts say, is one of the biggest causes of discontent.
“If you thought you had enough, seeing pictures of other people having seemingly perfect lives make you want more… until even the search for ‘happiness’ and ‘contentment’ becomes a competition in itself,” says Ms Chua. “ ‘So-and-so has recently gotten into yoga to find work-life balance. Check out what she wore for her yoga class; it’s the chicest thing.’
“We find ourselves on this treadmill of competing with others over who has what. But studies show that buying things give you only a temporary high. After that you become used to the object and you return to your previous emotional state. And then you find yourself buying more things to get more emotional boosts.”
Other ground-up efforts to promote happiness and combat anxiety include the newly-opened counselling service Lion Mind, the long-running School of Positive Psychology, as well as Over-The-Rainbow, a wellness initiative set up by Yen-Lu Chow and his wife Yee Ling, who lost their son to depression.
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William Wan, the general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, gives Singaporeans a score of “6” on the happiness scale. He says things in Singapore weren’t always so dire: “If the Danes have hygge and the Japanese have ikigai, Singapore once had gotong royong, a Malay word meaning “the communal helping of one another”.
“Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM) has encouraged the revival of the gotong royong spirit that was inherent in the kampung environment, where cooperation in a community is the norm. Gotong royong involves the spirit of volunteerism, and working together for the benefit of the community. It promotes a selfless approach that is beneficial to the building of cultural identity collectively among the people.”
Dr Wan recently published a book titled Through The Valley: The Art Of Living And Leaving Well, aimed at helping particularly older folk find joy and contentment. The book advocates choosing well-being over material success, gratitude over greed.
Some social scientists say that collectivistic attitudes have long existed in Asian countries. According to some theories, Asians generally tend to see themselves as interconnected with the other people around them, valuing the group’s needs over each individual’s needs. On the other hand, Western cultures generally tend to be more individualistic, seeing each person as independent and empowered to put his beliefs above the group’s.
To wit, popular Western dramas tend to celebrate individuals who successfully swim against the tide (think Lawrence Of Arabia, Erin Brockovich, The Social Network), whereas Asian dramas often depict happiness achieved on the back of some collective or family consensus (think The Wedding Banquet, Crazy Rich Asians, every Ozu film). Not everyone agrees with this general binary of “collectivism” versus “individualism”, and some experts note that younger generations of Asian are becoming increasingly individualistic too.
But for Happiness Scientists’ Ms Yeo and Ms Chua, collectivism may have a dark side. Ms Yeo explains: “In cultures such as Singapore’s, one always puts into consideration what one’s family and relatives think about one’s decisions. In fact, the opinions of others may play just as big a part in one’s life. But this can be a problem. Think of what happens when one follows a particular academic track to please one’s parents – which is not uncommon in Singapore… I think that if we care less about what our parents and relatives think, if we learn to be a little more individualistic, if we heed our calling, we can take care of our happiness a little better.”
The process of “coming out” to those around you will, of course, be messy. Ms Yeo says: “If a daughter tells her parents, ‘Ma, Pa, I’m burnt out. I want to quit my job and spend a year seeing the world’, and the parents’ knee-jerk reaction is, ‘Girl, are you crazy? Just take a short holiday and you’ll feel better”… that won’t solve anything. The individual needs to learn to trust herself and her subjective experiences to determine what she really wants out of her life. Meanwhile, those around her need to become better at listening and processing the information before giving a considered opinion.”
Ms Yeo and Ms Chua think Asian collectivism could partially account for why Western countries dominate the list of the top 20 happiest countries in the world. Four of the highest ranking Asian countries are Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and Japan – all affluent countries with well-educated and healthy populations – but they sit at 25, 34, 54 and 58 respectively.
How to be happier
How then to be happier? The experts say: Change your narrative.
One of the most-read newspaper stories last month was The Straits Times’ feature titled “What Bhutan taught me about happiness” written by former journalist Karen Lim. The Singaporean visited Bhutan in 2017 and fell in love with her Bhutanese tour guide, marrying him in 2018 and moving to his home country.
She says that after the story was published, she received many online messages from complete strangers thanking her for making them see things in a different light. “When I moved to Bhutan, the biggest shift in perspective for me is that I’ve learned to live a simple life, away from the so-called first world problems. I suppose the lack of choices makes my life and thoughts more streamlined and gives me more time to focus on my family, friends and on myself too… When you’re presented with fewer choices, you tend to be more contented with what you already have and you won’t crave what you don’t need.”
Ms Lim may present an extreme example of changing one’s narrative. For the rest of us, Happiness Scientists’ Ms Yeo says: “We have to find the time to consider these important questions about our lives: Is this what I really want to do, or is this what society wants me to do? What’s stopping me from living the life that I want? When you’ve found some answers, you have to find the strength in yourself to pursue these different goals – which, more often than not, come with certain trade-offs.”
Such advice may frequently appear in truncated forms in greeting cards and Disney cartoons. But following it is anything but easy – especially for adults with social and financial obligations. To help the process, experts say that there should be a much wider range of narratives in Singapore about what can bring us happiness.
Ms Yeo explains: “It doesn’t have to be as extreme as leaving your high-paying job to work for nothing at a volunteer organisation. It could be something in-between, such as asking for a demotion or a three-day work week for lower pay so you can spend more time with your family. It doesn’t have to be an “either/or” thing. There’s often a big gray zone to find your solutions in. Keep tweaking them till you find the right balance. Believe there’s a narrative out there just for you. If you don’t believe it, you will never look for it.”
Meanwhile, the Happiness Initiative is set to organise its first Happiness Conference in March 2020, with talks by key speakers and experiential courses for participants. Like its previous events, the conference will probably be oversubscribed.
Expert tips on happiness
“Pursue relationships and experiences with people you love – not material goods. Buying things you like can often give you an emotional high. But that feeling eventually wears off and you return to your original emotional state.”
“Switch off your electronic devices. You’ll be surprised how much calmer you feel when you don’t have to check your phone ever so often.”
“At the office, recognise that you can only be productive for, say, two hours. After that you need to take a break and maybe even take a short stroll. We are not machines; all of us want to work in a happy environment – as opposed to a highly-productive but unhappy one.”
Dr William Wan:
“Choose contentment over competition… being content means not comparing yourself with others, regardless of how much more they have achieved. There will always be someone smarter, richer, better than us.”
“Jot down all the things you’re grateful for. Keep a gratitude journal.”
“If you need to quickly get out of a bad emotional state, go out and do something nice for a stranger or someone you know – like buying her or him a meal. It’s been scientifically proven to give you a boost of positive emotions.”
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This article was originally published in The Business Times.