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Reasons to be happy if you’re Singaporean: money, security, complaining … and what else? 

A global survey rated Singapore the world’s third happiest country. Not everyone agreed. We asked Singaporeans how accurate that ranking is, and how such a wealthy, highly developed country should measure happiness 

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 March, 2018, 8:16am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 March, 2018, 12:43pm

Is Singapore really one of the happiest countries in the world, along with Denmark and Costa Rica? That was the conclusion drawn by National Geographic magazine in a report published late last year, which reasoned that citizens of the three nations feel secure, have a strong sense of purpose, and enjoy minimal stress and optimal joy.

In the report, The Blue Zones of Happiness, author Dan Buettner highlights each country’s distinct brand of happiness. Singapore, he writes, is in the top three because it provides citizens with “a clear, safe path to success”. Singaporeans benefit from “life satisfaction”. Their hard work is recognised and they are proud of what they have accomplished, Buettner claims.

Generally, plenty of Singaporeans haven’t had the luxury of thinking for themselves. 
Johanna Tay

The report has been met with scepticism, however, and even prompted a degree of soul searching among some citizens of the Lion City as to the true meaning of happiness.

Alvin Chong, founder of functional meals start-up Lembas, says the National Geographic metric was just that – a single metric that equated Singapore’s happiness merely with its citizens’ net worth. 

“Going by that metric, Singapore certainly ranks as one of the happiest countries, as a high proportion of its populace are wealthy. This includes 142,000 millionaires and 28 billionaires in a population of 5.5 million,” Chong says. 

However, he points out, happiness cannot be measured by net worth alone.

“The article also mentions the Gallup-National Geographic Index, which measures 18 of the most important indicators of well-being. As there are several other countries wealthier than Singapore, it cannot be said that Singapore is the happiest country, even going strictly by the metric of net worth,” Chong adds.

Dr Daniel Goh, associate professor and deputy head of sociology at the National University of Singapore, says there’s a tendency towards cultural generalisation in measurements of universal happiness. In some cultures, smiling may be taken as an expression of friendliness, not happiness, for example. 

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Goh says Singaporeans, on the other hand, tend to come across as serious and lacking in emotion, and he puts it down to a strong work ethic. Complaining, which may be regarded elsewhere as a symptom of negative emotions, is a trigger for happiness among Singaporeans, who derive much satisfaction from having a moan.

“Singapore is a happy nation with a terrible ecological footprint, which means we are consuming plenty of resources and emitting a lot of pollution to achieve our happiness. It doesn’t negate the fact that we are happy. We are just high-maintenance happy people,” he says.

Shaan Rai, a British physiotherapist who has lived in Singapore for four years, insists that success and happiness do not necessarily go hand in hand, but says Singaporeans have every reason to be satisfied. 

“Happiness can be found internally, but on a mass scale it is made easier when there is proper infrastructure and economic stability. When less time is spent worrying about disease, or where the next meal is coming from, more time can be spent in personal pursuits and building relationships. Singapore has built a solid foundation and can now develop other tenets, such as purpose, physical and social happiness,” Rai says.

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Actress Nora Samosir also has a problem with how the happiness of a country is defined in the National Geographic report, and suggests it would be better assessed through questionnaires asking individuals if they are content with their lives.

“Or should we look at how many people suffer from clinical depression? Should we measure national happiness by the number of people above the age of retirement who are still living active lives, not necessarily working at full-time jobs but taking part in various activities – social, physical or creative,” she says.

The perception of happiness varies widely across cultures, Johanna Tay, an educator and property agent, points out. The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, for example, is known for its governing philosophy of “Gross National Happiness” – with an emphasis on pillars such as sustainable development and environmental conservation.

“Singapore and Bhutan are at different stages of growth in different areas,” she says. “Is it more important to have health or to have imagination? Would you want to give up either? 

“Singapore has economic security, infrastructure and a largely Western-educated workforce. Bhutan has forest cover, land, natural resources and a deep respect for the Earth. But Singapore has a lot of anxiety about being a small nation, and Bhutan has a lot of anxiety about being modern.”

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Although Singaporeans find security in the country’s wealth and social stability, some argue that stakeholders in the city state should work more closely to create broader foundations for a happier society. 

“Singaporeans need to collectively recognise that we are no longer the scared, vulnerable child of the 1960s, but have matured into an eminently capable, trusted businessperson that is held in high regard throughout Asia and the world,” Chong says. 

“Schools and companies should recognise and start to take responsibility for the nurturing and growth of the overall nature of people – that Singaporeans are not just there to maximise economic value. Treat people like all-rounded individuals that deserve a holistic education, and a work environment where they feel cared for beyond what they bring to the company.”

Tay hints that Singaporeans may have become complacent in a bubble of security, and cautions against being drawn into the trap of comparing themselves with others – always trying to be “better” – which, she believes, is being exacerbated by social media.

“Generally, plenty of Singaporeans haven’t had the luxury of thinking for themselves. They have lived out of their parents’ and friends’ pockets, and this has become worse with social media. 

“If it wasn’t enough being compared at Chinese New Year and family gatherings, the younger generation has to contend with comparing themselves with crazier materialistic goals, be it a more exotic destination, have more food, richer, crazier friends, and more extreme pranks to get attention,” she says.

“On the plus side, I see so much quality human interactions among the groups or minority communities, for example LGBTQ circles that I am in contact with. What is horrible, are groups of people being allowed to carry out events that broadcast their intolerance. 

“Recent disturbing cases include groups such as the Faith Community Baptist Church and Aware, a women’s rights activist group, being taken over by Christian fundamentalists, and a general inertia by our leadership to look into the changing structure and needs of our society.”

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Stakeholders including employers and community groups also need to work closely with the people to create stronger social awareness, Rai says. Organisations should encourage citizens to care more about others through charity in communities or relationship building among employees.

“Associations can petition the government for any wants they may have to improve happiness. I think addressing the mental health issues, depression and stress levels can be very useful, but it would require a push from big companies and a fiscal benefit from it to be more mainstream,” he says.

Whether the findings of National Geographic’s report are credible, it is also arguable that Singapore’s unique identity as a young, multicultural city state mean the parameters of how happiness is defined could, and maybe should, evolve.

Tracy Phillips, a brand director and media professional, believes that, as Singapore is still a young nation, happiness will also grow as society becomes mature and independent. 

“I’m proud to call Singapore home and say it fosters happiness through its cultural identity, but I do think we need to strike a better balance between decision making which furthers our GDP growth and the other factors that affect civil society, like preserving our culture, collective history and greater social liberties,” she says.

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A world of happiness

In Costa Rica, which ranked alongside Singapore and Denmark as the world’s three happiest countries in last year’s National Geographic report, happiness is derived from sustaining “day-to-day carefreeness” within an “alchemy of geography and social policies”. The result is “a powerful blend of family bonds, faith and generosity” that gave Costa Ricans joy, the report says. Scientists call this “experienced happiness” or “positive affect”.

In Denmark, happiness is a system that “encourages the kind of balance between engaging work and rewarding play” because the Danes have a government that “supports the well-being of people” while they “[set] aside time for self-fulfilment”.