Hong Kong: a city drowning in its own unhappiness?

Alice Wu says recent reports on our unhappy students and workers highlight the extent to which people rely on external circumstances for fulfilment, suggesting the folly of this approach

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 September, 2015, 10:30am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 September, 2015, 10:30am

The news is seriously making me depressed. Over the past month, there has been a flood of reports suggesting this city is drowning in its own misery.

First we got bumped down an Economist Intelligence Unit ranking of the world's most liveable cities by a whopping 15 spots. Then, as our students were heading back to school, we learned that a Baptist Oi Kwan Social Service and Institute of Education survey has found that half of our secondary school students showed signs of depression, with almost a quarter having considered suicide.

And it gets worse - six out of 10 Hongkongers are unhappy in their jobs, according to a survey by a jobs website. We are so miserable that when we crowned a straight-A Cambridge-educated Miss Hong Kong, we bashed her for her privileged life and her lack of real setbacks in life.

Depressed and suicidal teens should worry us. But one must wonder whether those behind the survey have accounted for the teenagers' raging hormones. As a teenager, I worried about my future and was concerned that I was somehow not good enough. That 29.3 per cent of the students reported having the same anxieties seems normal.

Is perfection our only chance at being happy? Perhaps we need to ask: are we looking for happiness in the right places?

In fact, considering how much pressure we pile on our children from a very young age, and how gruelling our exam-obsessed school system is, the figure seems surprisingly low.

The authors of the survey had suggested spending time with family and friends, and exercising regularly to help youngsters fight depression. That's sensible, but it fails to reflect reality. How much time do our students have, outside school and tutorials, to do those simple things?

We profess concern for their mental health, but until we change our priorities, as parents and educators, we're just paying lip service to the notion. We should ask ourselves: how many times have we told our students that they, as people, are more important than their grades? We have equated "success" with "happiness", teaching our youth that happiness is based on external factors.

The 60 per cent of unhappy workers must include a lot of parents and educators. Which begs the question: if we have failed to make ourselves happy, how can we be good role models for our youth?

According to the workforce survey, these are the top factors of unhappiness: dissatisfaction with salary, company benefits, and incentives; working environment, culture and reputation; and relationship with colleagues or boss. Our pursuit of happiness, it seems, is contingent on a host of external circumstances. Others - companies, colleagues and bosses - decide whether or not we are happy.

Perhaps we can be happy only in an ideal world, where the pay and benefits are wonderful and the workplace is full of love and joy. Is perfection our only chance at being happy? Perhaps we need to ask: are we looking for happiness in the right places?

Psychiatrist Mark Epstein once wrote that "the very ways we seek happiness actually block us from finding it. Our first mistake is in trying to wipe out all sources of displeasure and search for a perennial state of well-being." The annoying boss, an underpaid job, and others, are sources of displeasure. But instead of allowing them to define our happiness, perhaps we ought to do this for ourselves.

Here's where the newly crowned Miss Hong Kong Louisa Mak Ming-sze may be able to shed some light. When asked about what she considered to be her biggest setback in life, she named her failure to win a scholarship to study in Britain, but she also called it "a good lesson in life". Maybe it was a disappointment, but she turned it into a lesson learnt.

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