Can Hong Kong become a happier place? Six practical tips for burned-out city dwellers

Despite its relative wealth, Hong Kong keeps slipping down the global happiness league. Follow these steps to raise your happiness level

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 May, 2017, 6:47am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 May, 2017, 11:08am

The economic value of human capital rests on its happiness, according to a growing number of business leaders, politicians and entrepreneurs. And it’s something money can’t buy – one explanation for Hongkongers’ unhappiness.

While the city was ranked the eighth wealthiest place in the world based on gross domestic product per capita in 2016 by Global Finance Magazine, and Hongkongers enjoy the world’s longest average life expectancy, and a pleasant climate, the city also has the largest concentration of individual wealth in Asia and the richest 10 per cent of households earn 29 times more than the poorest 10 per cent. Hong Kong has been slipping down the league table of global happiness, from 47th in the United Nations’ World Happiness Report in 2012 to 72nd in 2015 and 75th this year.

Wealth and happiness do go together, but only up to a point. In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow famously described a triangle of human needs with five hierarchical levels: having a place to live, enough to eat and clothes to wear, form the lowest tiers. Being unable to satisfy these needs makes us unhappy. When global economic initiatives successfully lift people out of poverty and fulfil these needs, a country’s collective happiness increases. Beyond this point, however, the adage that money cannot bring happiness kicks in and the pursuit of happiness becomes trickier.

What influences happiness?

How can we nurture happiness once our basic needs are met? In 1989, psychologist Carol Ryff identified positive self-acceptance, relations with others, environmental mastery, autonomy, personal growth, and purpose in life as important features of a happy life.

Author’s TED talk on how to grow happiness

Many of these factors can be affected negatively by our fast-paced, urban lifestyle if we don’t pay careful attention to them. It is difficult for some of us to feel comfortable with who we are while surrounded by people who appear more successful; workplace competition interferes with positive relationships; we don’t have much control over our environment because work takes precedence; autonomy may be sacrificed for financial compensation; and we may lose sight of life’s purpose as we align ourselves with the purpose of the organisation we work for such that while we achieve success from the vantage point of our employer, we do not grow in line with our personal values and goals.

With a little effort, however, these issues can be addressed, allowing us to nurture our happiness in any environment. If we take care to engage in physical and mental maintenance, fine-tune our personal compasses, maintain growth and nurture human connections, we may all be able to increase happiness to some degree, without needing to get off the Hong Kong treadmill.

These six steps can help:

1. Take a balanced view

Experiencing pleasure is important for happiness. If we lose the ability to experience pleasure (a condition known as anhedonia), the world looks very grey. When a mouse is made to suffer from chronic social stress, it develops anhedonia and becomes depressed. This is one way chronic stress may contribute to the world’s unhappiness burden.

Pleasure alone, however, does not bring happiness. The elation we feel upon winning the lottery or buying a dream home eventually fades by a process known as hedonic adaptation. If you want to be truly happy, it may be important to occasionally remember what unhappiness feels like. A balanced way to view happiness is as a general baseline of well-being, interrupted with frequent peaks of joy and sporadic troughs of unhappiness.

2. Manage negative emotions

Although experiencing a little unhappiness here or there may do us good, too much unhappiness makes us truly unhappy. Becoming better at controlling negative emotions can help to ease the daily burden of unhappiness.

We tend to use different strategies for managing emotions, depending on the context. For example, we might use positive imagery to replace negative thoughts when feeling low or we might shift attention away from a source of distress when trying to stay calm. Sharpening our armoury of strategies can increase happiness. A recent study published in the journal PeerJ in October 2016 found how the ability to regulate emotions correlated with subjective happiness and life satisfaction in 442 out-of-work men and women from two cities in southern Spain.

3. Go for the flow

Attentional skills play a role in happiness. An illustration of how controlling attention can contribute to happiness is the process of “flow” – a state of intense focus in which people feel completely happy, first described by Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975.

You can enter flow by doing something that is challenging enough to completely absorb your attention, without being so challenging that motivation dwindles. You are so engrossed in what you are doing that your mind can’t wander into negativity. You barely notice the world around you and break away from negative thoughts relating to yourself and your situation. Incorporating opportunities for flow into your day can make you happier.

Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony
Mahatma Gandhi

4. Align with your authentic self

According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, we become happy through living in alignment with our core values and by reaching for goals that give our lives a sense of purpose and meaning.

This kind of happiness arises from doing things that take us further towards where we want to be, or improve us in a way we want to improve. It may explain why philanthropy, spirituality and serving a purpose higher than ourselves can contribute to happiness.

The memories we record of our experiences and actions form a film reel of our life, as we see it. The more noble and successful the character we play in our mind’s eye, the happier we are with the movie. Our sense of self suffers when the way we live grates against our core values or self-identity, and aligning our lives with our core beliefs increases happiness. Mahatma Gandhi highlighted this when he said: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony.”

5. Challenge yourself

Novelty and challenge force our brains to become active, as we must navigate our way through uncertainty, learn new information and solve problems. In a way, this makes us grow as we upgrade our existing selves to a self that is better adapted to the new environment we are faced with. Growth of this kind may increase happiness. Most of us know of someone who has undertaken an extreme mental and physical challenge after a personal tragedy and felt happier after it.

Encouraging neural activity and growth within a mouse’s brain by exposing it to an environment enriched with challenge and novelty reduces the anhedonia it develops from chronic stress. Some antidepressants seem to work better on mice when the mice are placed in an enriched environment, and many new therapeutic interventions currently being explored for treating major depressive disorder focus on mechanisms relating to neuroplasticity and growth.

How to build resilience to chronic stress by exercising in the morning and drinking less alcohol

6. Find social anchors

One of the most fascinating longitudinal studies to ever be conducted on well-being was the Grant Study, which began at Harvard University in the United States in 1937. The university recruited 268 male undergraduates and followed as many of them as possible well into old age, periodically assessing them with interviews, questionnaires, medical exams and psychological tests.

According to George Vaillant, who worked on the study for over 30 years, the quality of human relationships was the most salient factor in determining an individual’s overall happiness. It was not simply the presence or absence of a relationship that mattered, but its warmth. The warmth of our connections with others acts as a buffer during difficult times and anchors us to a place of safety and protection.

In conclusion, the advent of the UN’s World Happiness index heralds an extraordinary point in human civilisation. It will prompt nations to compete, not for wealth or territory, but for happiness.

Trading happiness does not create inequality nor contribute to national debt, its reserves are boundless and it grows the more it is shared. It is time to consider a serious investment in this long ignored commodity: long-term returns are guaranteed.

Mithu Storoni is an author, physician and researcher. Before moving to Hong Kong, she was a clinical research fellow at the National Hospital of Neurology and Neurosurgery in London