Since 2012, the year in which Singapore made headlines as the world’s unhappiest country, the happiness barometer has fluctuated, depending on which index one follows. The World Happiness Report 2015 and a separate United Nations study ranked Singapore the happiest nation in Asia. The Happy Planet Index placed it behind even war-ravaged Syria.
Is it possible to reconcile these findings, and are they of import? What’s stopping Singaporeans from finding happiness? The Peak discussed the issue over dinner earlier this year, with a cast from a diverse range of professions.
The discrepancy between the indexes did not surprise Dr Christopher Cheok, vice-chairman of the Medical Board at the Institute of Mental Health, and author of Achieving Happiness in Singapore, a successful and widely distributed title in Singapore.
“Happiness is measured across many variables,” Dr Cheok explains. “From a scientific perspective, when we measure employment, housing and security, Singapore is ranked very high. But the story changes, if we look only at how a person feels at a single point in time.”
The latter metric is what earned Singapore its “miserable” tag. But Michael Tay, founder of the non-profit Foundation for The Arts and Social Enterprise, found it too narrowly defined to matter. “I don’t look for happiness anymore – if you do, you’ll always be disappointed. It’s just a state of mind.”
Instead, Tay values fulfilment. The foundation serves as a platform for grooming and promoting local artists, so they may take to the international stage. “Fulfilment will come with sadness, agony, suffering, but if you get what you set out to achieve – that’s real happiness.”
Martin Geh, a managing director at Google Singapore, shares his sentiment. “I don’t buy the idea that happiness is that important. In some instances, happiness may be the wrong objective,” he says. Geh feels that the “incessant pursuit” is unnecessarily proliferated by Americans and has become the benchmark of a successful life.
In fact, it’s the raised expectations that may have a dampening effect on one’s contentment. Cheryl Lee, a top banker and co-owner of F&B venture 1-Rochester Group, cautions against pinning too much on one-off events.
“It’s like a bucket list – you set your goals on the assumption that sensorial experiences will give you theoretical happiness, once you tick off all the boxes. But when you’ve done it, you think: ‘hmm, that’s it’? The more an individual is attuned to certain expectations, the more disproportionately small their happiness gets.”
Building upon this, Geh points out that Singaporeans are especially prone to a phenomenon called survivorship bias, where an individual compares himself to only “winners” and forgets that there are many less fortunate or accomplished than he is. “Consequently, he will feel less happy, even though he has plenty to be proud of.”
Social media has exacerbated this problem, as it facilitates easier comparison with peers. Plus, peers may always appear like they are having a blast. “I know a guy who looks really happy in his pictures, but I know he isn’t, really,” says Tay, drawing chuckles all around.
With so many downers, where then can one look for happiness? The most common answer might be to secure more material gain, but Dr Cheok advises against equating this with happiness. “Past a certain income level, money doesn’t contribute to your happiness as much. Marketing and advertising tend to decrease people’s happiness levels – they highlight deficiency, to create demand.”
Instead, Quah Soon Hong, director of operations at the 1-Rochester Group, favours a proactive approach by performing generous or courteous acts. “Doing something positive works, because for every positive action, there is a positive reaction. We need to practise this – we don’t do it enough.”
Take time off to connect, say newlyweds Vijay K. Pillai of Caerus Holding and Valerie Tan. Despite the pressure inherent in running a company, the couple spend quality time together each day.
“We really concentrate on each other, discarding all other worries like work and upcoming projects. For that half hour, it’s best to focus on something which doesn’t require that much thinking.”
Deep and meaningful relationships are, in fact, the key reason why women are actually happier than men at every stage of life, despite men appearing more carefree. Women tend to have more emotional support, and are more willing to share their problems, which diffuses stress. “Men could turn to substance abuse or alcoholism instead,” says Dr Cheok.
For Kathryn Yap, managing partner at executive recruitment firm CTPartners, a poem by Pulitzer-winning playwright Edna St Vincent Millay is her mantra for a happy existence: “Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand, come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!” Yap is a staunch believer of living life to the fullest without fear of consequence.
Job satisfaction is also paramount, says Sherraine Chan. As a leading compliance officer, she has had to walk the fine line between enforcing rules on, and maintaining relationships with, client banks, and she wrestled with the conflict of interest early on. “I eventually compartmentalised the emotions. The nature of (the job) does keep me calm. When you learn to love yourself, you choose the path you walk on, then you find some kind of joy.”
Dr Cheok sums up the general sentiment thus far. “Happiness need not come from external, material things. It is an internal state of mind.” He points to gratitude as one of the most powerful tool to enhance happiness levels. “Even if there’s something better out there, appreciate what you have.” In his book, he recommends highlighting three things to be grateful for on a daily basis – simply being alive can be considered a blessing.
As a final point, the definition of happiness varies from individual to individual, and among phases in life. Lee, who is expecting her second child in about a month, has run the gamut.
“Monetary pursuit, career, ambition, all these things I thought I could wear as a badge of honour, in a society like Singapore – (they’re) not as priceless as what I’m going through now,” reflects Lee. “Sure, I’ve got backaches and can’t drink, and of course I’m griping about it, but soon all that won’t matter.”
“Perhaps the next hurdle will be seeing our children get married. We’d be over 80, so I’m not sure if we’ll be able to see that. That’s on my bucket list.”
The classic salon assembles leaders of society, and those in art and politics, to discuss and commune with one another. The Singapore Institute of International Affairs and The Peak have updated this concept as a dinner conversation with a difference. The SIIA-Peak salon is where sound bites and bites of good food intersperse, and guests from different backgrounds share their views on a significant topic. Exploring big questions and small, the salon conversation moves between smart and sometimes controversial, serious and irreverent, the crux of which is documented on these pages.
This instance of The Peak Salon Series was hosted graciously by Jade Restaurant, Fullerton Hotel.