Hongkongers seeking happiness must ask if it is more important how long you live or the way that you live it
Despite research showing that Hong Kong is not the happiest place in the world to live in, the tough and resilient attitude of its people helps them live longer – but perhaps quality of life is more important than longevity
In Hong Kong, people scowl more than they smile and often feel stressed out and exhausted, rather than cheerful and relaxed.
This dour attitude is not a new phenomenon. The city ranks low in liveability, happiness and work-life balance, it is obsessed with work, clocking up 50.1 hours per week, the highest in the world. All of these factors are hardly conducive to creating an environment for its residents to live a healthy and long life.
Surprisingly, Hong Kong’s men and women enjoy the longest life expectancies in the world – 81.7 years for males and 87.7 for females, according to government data released last year. And life expectancies for both sexes have been steadily rising for nearly five decades. In 1971, it was 67.8 years for males and 75.3 years for females. By 2066, Hong Kong’s men are expected to live for 87.1 years and women 93.1 years.
Despite being one of the wealthiest cities in the world, Hong Kong is ranked the seventh least happy place on Earth, trailing behind war-torn countries such as Iran, Iraq and Ukraine, according to a survey by US-based research organisation Gallup International. How can such a seemingly unhappy, grim-faced population live so long? Dr Paul Wong Wai-ching, associate professor in the department of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong, explains why.
“We complain a lot, but that doesn’t seem to have a negative impact on our overall life expectancies, despite a common belief that purports positivity as an integral part of physical wellness,” says Wong.
“I think a sense of determination that is prevalent among Hongkongers keeps us going. We have a saying in Cantonese, ‘There’s time to die, but no time to waste on being ill,’ which totally encapsulates the purposeful nature of most Hongkongers.”
Wong adds that other more evidence-based contributing factors include the high walkability rates and easy access to medical services. According to a Stanford University survey, the city has the highest walkability rate at an average of 6,880 steps a day – compared with a world average of 4,961.
“Walking is the best way to maintain fitness as it reduces the risks of many chronic diseases and promotes mental health, which in turn reduces a range of mental illnesses. We rarely notice that many of those foot journeys to and from the MTR stations every day do add up to make us the most active people in terms of walking,” Wong says.
“Hong Kong may be a very small place but we have beautiful outdoor spaces within reach – less than 30 minutes from the city. There are country parks, leisure open spaces and we even have a Disneyland.” Another contributing factor to Hong Kong people’s longevity is our proximity to health care services.
“We are no more than 30 minutes away from any hospital, so in a medical emergency, the chances are most people would be able to get there in time. This reduces our overall mortality rates,” says Wong.
Dr Kevin Tsang Wai-yin, a specialist in geriatric medicine, agrees that the benefits of medical convenience and high standard health care are important. He also echoes Wong’s views on Hongkongers’ sense of purpose in life and their resilience.
“It might not be a scientifically-backed explanation, but it’s related to our population. A great number of today’s older residents came from the mainland years ago, mostly from Guangdong. These immigrants are physically and mentally tough, and their personal qualities have in some ways made up the basic characteristics of today’s Hongkongers,” Tsang says.
A Harvard study of adult development also points out that spending time with other people makes ageing more bearable and even pleasant on a day-to-day basis. This is especially true if the time is spent with a partner or spouse.
Tsang agrees that having constant companionship helps alleviate physical pains and illnesses that come with ageing. “In Hong Kong’s traditional family setting, old people are often looked after by their children as they share accommodation, which is a definite plus.”
The concept of “well-derly” people is beginning to crop up among the greying population of Hong Kong – the term means older people who don’t feel old or act their age.
According to Tsang, having a proactive attitude in life also helps in achieving longevity.
“About 30 years ago, elderly people were less in control of their health because they were more passive. Today it’s a different story, people are more informed and want to be actively involved in maintaining and improving their health and the ageing process. This kind of attitude certainly helps promote positive thinking and enhance happiness,” says Tsang.
Other factors, such as warmer relationships with your parents and late retirement may help too, but one contributor that is uniquely Hong Kong is the habit of playing mahjong. Recent research in the city has confirmed that this traditional tile game could help decrease the risk of dementia and keep the mind sharper for longer.
It’s sad but true that people with dementia usually have a shorter life, however, according to Wong, there are around 2,000 centenarians in the city.
Family doctor Lam Wing-wo is optimistic that the younger population will live even longer than their predecessors because of better health awareness and enhanced preventive measures.
“Young people have an even better grip on their health as they are willing to take active measures to control their blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and many other conditions that could possibly lead to serious illnesses down the road. Meanwhile, Hong Kong has done quite well in recent years in terms of lowering the rates of various forms of cancer,” Lam says.
“In general, Hongkongers tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to health care, which might not be a bad thing.” Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioner Teresa Chau Ka-yee, says some of her patients in their 20s are already quite knowledgeable about how to maintain physical and mental harmony through TCM.
“Half of my patients are young people but they know full well the benefits of keeping peace and balance between their internal environment – their bodies – and the immediate environment outside,” Chau says. “It’s important for us to keep the meridian system clear of blockage so as to allow life energy to pass throughout our body smoothly. One simple way to maintain this is by eating a healthy and balanced diet. Other health enhancing methods include acupuncture, daily stretching exercises, proper rest and relaxation.”
Chau’s simple analogy is: “Maintaining good health is similar to saving money; you need to spend less in order to have savings. So when it comes to health, you have to do fewer harmful activities to avoid ‘spending away’ your health.”
Wong, however, warns that with all the persistent stress and lack of work-life balance that comes with our busy city lives, he “doesn’t see our young people doing that well in terms of mental wellness.”
“In fact, I often hear young people complain about not wanting to live ‘that long’ and prefer to have a better life rather than a longer one,” he says.
It’s well known that mental and physical health are interrelated. Wong warns that a lot of Hong Kong people tend to sweep mental health issues under the carpet, assume they are just temporary problems triggered by stress, and hope they will just disappear when the stress levels come down.
“It’s not scientifically proven that happiness leads to longevity. Even though the city’s life expectancies are becoming longer but a long life doesn’t always equate to happiness and living long doesn’t mean living better, especially against today’s backdrop of high cost of living, and the exorbitant housing prices,” he adds.
Wong actually puts forward some thought-provoking questions to challenge the meaning of longevity.
With scientific advancement, prolonging life could become easily available to most people in the near future. But if we can’t maintain a healthy and happy state of mind too, would we just be extending life’s miseries?
“In this case, longevity would be a curse rather than a blessing. Maybe what we really need to pursue is not extending our lives but expanding our happiness,” Wong says.
Whatever the price of longevity is, perhaps we ought to appraise whether we wish to have a life that values quality over quantity. Just remember, the quality of your life is down to your choices.
Think about how you want to live out your last days. Whether it’s regretting not working hard enough, not spending enough time exercising, being with your loved ones, travelling around the world, or all of the above.
The choice is yours.
Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post