Sunday, August 13, 2006

Post No. 80: Do You Feel Happy, Singapore?

Do you feel happy, Singapore?

Well, if we are to use the results of a recent study by England’s New Economics Foundation (NEF) as a basis for answering the above question, it would seems that we Singaporeans are most unhappy. According to this study (which supposedly ranked countries according to their level of happiness), Singapore was ranked at the 131st place (out of 178 countries), making it the second most unhappy Asian state after South Korea. Yet, interestingly, another similar “happiness” study by England’s University of Leicester (UOL) ranked Singapore as the 53rd happiest country out of a hundred countries. This would mean that while Singapore may not be on cloud nine, it is not down in the dumps either.

The results of these 2 studies and the evident disparity between them have generated much discussion in the past few weeks. Besides the difference in Singapore’s “happiness” ranking, there was also much talk about how while the study by the NEF placed Vanuatu, a small and mostly undeveloped island nation in the South Pacific, as the most happy nation, the study by UOL placed Denmark, a rich and developed European country, as the happiest country in the world. In addition, there was also much discussion and debate on whether Singapore is happy or not and what happiness really means.

Examining the results of these 2 studies, I managed to come up with a few insights that I would be sharing with you all in this essay. Hopefully, these humble insights of mine would provoke some thought in you all and make you all think about “happiness” in a way you all never have.

Firstly, I would like to say that, in my opinion, happiness is something which is most subjective. I mean, happiness can mean different things to different people. What is happiness to me may well perhaps be sorrow to you all. For example, to a young child, happiness can mean something as simple as being able to eat his/her favourite ice cream but, to a working adult, happiness would most probably mean something much more complicated and difficult to achieve, like getting a promotion and/or being able to successfully complete a major project. Hence, I would say that happiness is not something which can be measured with scientific precision.

Thus, bearing in mind that happiness is something which is most subjective and that can have many different definitions attached to it, we would be able to understand and explain the disparity between the results of the NEF study and the UOL study. If I’m not wrong, while the NEF placed more emphasis on factors such as the level of stress and competition in its study, the UOL emphasised more on factors like living standards and the quality of environmental standards for its study. Hence, recognising the different emphasis the 2 studies had, it is not difficult to understand why there were the evident differences in their end results, especially for which country is the happiest in the world.

In addition, I would like to point out to you all that, as counterintuitive as it may seems to you all, a high level of material wealth and economic development in a country need not necessarily mean a high level of happiness for those living and working in that country. While there may be a direct correlation between material wealth (and economic development) and happiness at lower levels of material wealth, such a relation most probably would not exist at higher levels of material wealth. I say this because, in my opinion, that as material wealth and economic development increases, it would most likely bring about a higher level of stress and competitiveness in a country. Also, we need to consider the idea that with a higher level of material wealth and economic development, those living and working in a country would have higher expectations for both themselves and their standards of living. Thus, with all these factors combined together, it is more likely than not that people, stressed out and unsatisfied with their lives, would feel unhappy despite, if not in spite of, enjoying a higher level of material wealth and economic development.

Hence, it may be seen that there may perhaps be a trade-off between progress (in the form of material wealth and economic development) and happiness. In other words, more progress means less happiness and vice versa. With this in mind, I suppose it is up to each country to decide on what is the optimal level of progress and happiness they wish to achieve. Of course, it would be best if a country can manage to achieve both a high level of progress and happiness at the same time but it is highly unlikely that such a situation can be realised. Thus, realistically speaking, each country has to decide: do they want more happiness or more progress?

Moving on, I would like to make another counterintuitive suggestion to you all. And this suggestion is that, though it may technically be a negative emotion, unhappiness need not necessarily be a completely bad thing. Before you all start disputing this suggestion of mine, allow me to elaborate further on it. Well, to me, being happy is equivalent to being satisfied with what we all have in our lives and thus, unhappiness would conversely signify a form of dissatisfaction in people towards their lives. In my viewpoint, it is this dissatisfaction and/or unhappiness with their lives and the world around them which drives people to want to improve themselves and/or to bring about positive (hopefully) changes to the state of the world. Just imagine if Thomas Edison (he’s the guy who invented the electrical lightbulb, in case you all have forgotten it) was not dissatisfied with candlelight, would we have the convenience of electrical lighting today? Thus, it may be observed that unhappiness (or dissatisfaction) is “good” in that it acts as a motivation for people to progress.

Conversely speaking, while the mindset of not wanting too much out of Life and/or being easily satisfied with what we all have in Life (or as the Chinese would call it: “知足常乐”) is something admirable and that will bring us happiness, it can be seen that, in a way, such a mindset could possibly contribute to the stagnation of society and people. I mean, if everybody is contented and satisfied with their lives and the world around them, the likelihood of them acting to improve themselves and the world is minimal. Matters may even become worse, if being happy contented with their lives, people start focusing their energy and attention onto hedonistic pursuits. This, to me, would signify the beginning of the end for such a “happy” society. Of course, it would be best if happiness (whatever it means) is achieved by everybody in a society but we should pay great heed to the possible dangers arising from such a situation and avoid them. Also, we should not allow the achieving of universal happiness to become an excuse for us to stop striving for progress.

In the end, I would just like to say that happiness is, to me, ultimately a mindset and not something determined by external circumstances. I mean, one can also be unhappy in happy circumstances and vice versa. Thus, the only person who can say whether we are happy or not is our own selves and not anyone else. Choose to be happy and you all will most probably be happy.

1 comment:

*The Lunatic Fringe* said...

I remember reading about a Jewish Holocaust Survivor of Auswitsch who described how human beings could still find meaning in life and continue living despite appalling conditions with death, disease and degradation of the human spirit that was in the Nazi death camps.

Many self-help books have prescribed how we can be immune to the setbacks in life through not letting external circumstances affect how we feel. Unfortunately, this also makes us unfeeling robots if we cut off the pain and makes us appreciate the happiness that comes.

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