Hongkongers must find their own path to happiness

Alice Wu says, ultimately, the path to happiness isa personal one, but unlike vast riches, it need not be attained at the expense of others

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 September, 2013, 2:59am

We truly are a competitive bunch. We eye regional and global surveys like hawks. It's like extending our childhood memories of getting our report cards - immediately searching for our spot on the rankings before sizing up our competitors. We don't know what resting on our laurels means. We critically dissect what it is we are not doing enough of, and then we go all in - hoping classic hard work, the Hong Kong spirit of resilience and our alpha-adrenaline - will carry us to a higher spot next year.

Last week, we were told that Hong Kong had moved up three spots in the World Happiness Report commissioned by the United Nations. But at 64th place, we were also told we are "not nearly as happy as Asian rivals". Can happiness truly be measured? Criteria can be set, areas of focus can be determined, but at the end of the day, how does one measure happiness - across the globe, across cultures, across daily realities?

How are we supposed to "feel" about that, given it is a serious survey of our feelings? Are we to look at our "rivals" with envy? Or are we supposed to adopt a schadenfreude smugness over beating, say, China, and home of the biggest global crisis of the day, Syria?

Neither. Comparing rarely helps in the happiness department. But yet, the report is still important as a benchmark, shedding light on areas where we need crucial and critical self-examination. Despite our problems, and every place has its own, Hong Kong is still a good place to be. As descendents of immigrants in pursuit of a better life - as most are - we know that Hong Kong still offers access to opportunities. We enjoy more freedoms than many around the world.

But we must also recognise the challenges we face. Opportunities that attracted many for decades have become lopsided, most evident by the city's wealth gap. Empty luxury flats sit in stark contrast with families stuffed into subdivided flats and cage-homes. "Happiness" slips further out of reach for all who are not super rich.

Our taste for speed, progress, development and competition does take a toll on our quality of life. We are more stressed, work longer hours and have less time for life. Despite the fact that Hong Kong is one of the healthiest places in the world, with people enjoying one of the highest life expectancies and a well-developed health care system, those priorities, in effect, make it certain that we spend more time stressing, work even more days with longer hours and have even less time for life.

It may be true that all people come "equipped" with the impulse to pursue happiness. It may also be true that money can't buy happiness, but the lack of it certainly makes attaining it even harder. It is perhaps time for us to slow down a little, and rethink our priorities; to strike the right balance between our need to be happy and our thirst for competition.

Governments around the world definitely have their work cut out to provide better happiness-aligned public policies for their people. But we must not forget, also, that happiness requires personal responsibility. Happiness, unlike mega fortunes, need not be attained through the suffering of others. And, ultimately, the path to happiness is a personal one. Even with all the right public policies in place, the journey of pursuit belongs to each individual.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA