Friday 18 May 2012

Why Singaporeans are the happiest in the region

Singaporeans are happy with their lot in life, a UN study shows. This is probably due to their high incomes, good health and having enough social support
By Lea Wee, The Straits Times, 17 May 2012

It may take naysayers by surprise, but Singapore does well when countries are ranked by how happy their people are.

In the first-ever World Happiness Study by the United Nations released last month, the island state was ranked the 33rd happiest country in the world, and the happiest in the region, ahead of nations such as Japan, Malaysia and Thailand.

The contentment derives from people's overall satisfaction with their lives.

Singaporeans report being happy or satisfied with their lives as a whole, which may be a function of having jobs, enough money to live on, a roof over their heads and physical health.

On the other hand, Singapore does less well in surveys of day-to-day happiness, which may be due to the stress of urban living.

But the UN study, which analysed data from Gallup and other surveys, affirmed how people here feel they have a high quality of life.

The study asked why some countries are happier than others.

It found that people in higher-ranked countries tended to have higher incomes, longer lives, stronger social networks and a certain amount of political freedom and stability.

Thus, the most contented nations were all in Northern Europe (Denmark, Norway, Finland and the Netherlands), which have high standards of living, immense personal freedom and strong civic cultures.

The least happy were countries in sub-saharan Africa, namely Togo, Benin, the Central African Republic and Sierra Leone, which have high levels of poverty and are war-torn.

Average incomes were 40 times higher and healthy life expectancy 28 years greater in the top four compared to the bottom four.

People in the top four were also more likely to have someone to call on in times of trouble than the bottom four (95 per cent versus 48 per cent), have a sense of freedom (94 per cent versus 63 per cent) and were less likely to perceive widespread corruption in business and government (35 per cent versus 85 per cent).

While income and health contributed significantly to people's happiness, the study found - through a statistical method called regression model - social networks, political freedom and stability to be more significant in comparison.

Dr Christopher Cheok, head and senior consultant psychiatrist at the department of psychological medicine at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH) said this is something previous psychologists and sociologists have noted.

Referring to the Maslow's hierarchy of human needs, a theory in human motivation, he said: 'Once people's incomes and health allow them to meet their basic needs for food and lodging, they want to fulfil more advanced needs.'

These include their needs for safety and security, followed by their needs for family and friends and finally, their needs for self-esteem and self-actualisation.

Other large-scale surveys on happiness covered in the UN study have consistently ranked Singapore among the top third of the happiest countries in the world.

For instance, the Gallup World Poll done between 2007 and 2010, which asked people how satisfied they are with their lives as a whole, ranked Singapore No. 36 out of a total of 129 countries.

The World Values Survey, which asked similar questions on life satisfaction, pegged Singapore at No. 37.

This puts Singapore ahead of other Asian countries such as Japan, Malaysia and Hong Kong.

But there is happiness and there is happiness.

While Singaporeans give a high rating to how happy or satisfied they are with their lives as a whole, but with so-called evaluative happiness, they tend to rate their daily, or affective happiness, more negatively.

For instance, Singapore was pegged No. 109 out of a total of 148 countries in a 2008 to last year Gallup poll which asked people how happy they were the day before. A similar survey by Gallup done between 2005 and 2011 on positive affect, measuring items from the day before such as laughter and joy, placed it 97 out of 156.

So though people here are happy with their lives overall, they find the daily grind more taxing.

Income and health have little impact on a person's day-to-day happiness, the UN study found. Social support, such as family and friends, is more significant.

This may explain why developing countries in Asia such as Laos, Cambodia, the Philippines and Indonesia, were placed ahead of Singapore in affective happiness, despite being less economically affluent.

But this does not necessarily mean that Singapore does not have a good social support, said Ms Lisa Choo, a senior clinical psychologist at KTPH.

She said: 'It could be that we are not in the habit of thinking about happiness. We don't make enough effort to adopt a more positive attitude in life, regardless of our life circumstances. But simply adopting a different perspective can vastly change our overall view of life and its circumstances.'

Ms Choo said affective and evaluative happiness do not have to be mutually exclusive, and that one feeds off the other.

The UN study, which was commissioned by the United Nations Conference on Happiness, reflects a growing momentum worldwide for more attention to happiness as a goal of government policy.

As early as 1972, the southern Asian country of Bhutan famously adopted the idea of gross national happiness (GNH) over gross national product (GNP) as a measure of development.

In recent years, there has been a growing recognition that traditional measurements of national progress, couched in terms of per capita GNP, may not be a true reflection of the well-being of citizens.

In Singapore, the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) recently developed its very own positive mental-health instrument to measure the well-being of Singapore's multi-ethnic population.

Associate Professor Chong Siow Ann, vice-chairman of the medical board of research at the IMH, said: 'For the longest time, we have focused on mental illnesses. But, more recently, people have realised that it's equally important to focus on mental well-being, to figure out what makes some people more resilient and able to withstand life's stresses than others.'

The IMH positive mental-health instrument measures six domains of well-being including emotional support, interpersonal skills and personal growth.

Dr Mythily Subramanian, deputy director of research at the IMH, said these domains are chosen using rigorous scientific methods which include focus-group discussion and surveys of about 2,500 Singaporeans of different races.

She said: 'Questions on evaluative and affective happiness give us an indication of how happy people are, but they do not tell us why people answer the questions the way they do. Domains give us a better idea.'

Using the instrument, the IMH found that a significant number of people here associate happiness with spirituality - either being religious or feeling like there is a greater purpose in life.

Said Dr Mythily: 'This could be because spirituality leads to stronger social networks and greater emotional support. These indirectly promote positive mental health in a person.'

What makes a person happy

After trawling through 30 years of happiness research and analysing worldwide data, the United Nations World Happiness Report came to the following conclusions about what makes a person happy.

They range from external factors, such as income, to more personal ones, such as health.

There is a two-way interaction between happiness and what makes one happy, so health affects a person's happiness and vice versa.

Dr Christopher Cheok, head and senior consultant in psychological medicine at the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, explained some of the findings.



People who earn more money are usually happier than those who earn less. But past a certain level, a higher income does not bring a commensurate level of satisfaction.

In fact, those who find it important to compare their incomes with other people's incomes are on average less satisfied with their lives.

This is probably because they tend to focus on people who have more, rather than less, than they.

It may also explain why, over time, people do not always become happier when their country becomes more affluent.

For instance, average happiness has not risen despite strong economic growth in countries such as the United States. Some studies show that, other things being equal, those who hold materialistic values are less happy.


Being out of work causes well-being to fall as badly as if it had been caused by bereavement or separation. This is less because unemployment leads to loss of income, but more because it leads to loss of other factors such as social status and self esteem.

However, having work does not necessarily make one happy either, if it does not come with job security. Satisfaction also depends on autonomy, workplace trust and independence.


This refers to how strongly united and resilient a society is, through its institutions and norms. The UN study shows that the happiness of nations is influenced by the extent to which their people believe they can count on others, such as family, friends and community, in times of trouble, as well as the amount of freedom they have to live their lives.


Most studies find religion to have some positive effect on well-being.

This could be because spirituality and religion allow people to feel connected to some greater meaning as well as make them feel part of a wider community. Religious groups also provide social and practical support to their members.

There is also evidence to show that altruistic behaviour, such as volunteering and making donations, benefits the giver through the positive feelings it evokes.



Mental illness has an immense impact on a person's happiness. Anxiety, worries and depression are unpleasant emotions. A psychotic person tends to be suspicious, paranoid and anxious.

Mental illness also affects a person's productivity and his ability to relate to people. This, in turn, reduces his happiness and that of those around him.


Physical health has a big impact on a person's life satisfaction.

Those with poor physical health are likely to experience lowered productivity and energy levels. Someone with a chronic health problem, such as diabetes, has three times the risk of depression. The presence of pain also has much impact.

Inversely, being unhappy has an adverse effect on health.

Happy people are less likely to get sick, according to research, which has found high correlations between low levels of well-being and subsequent coronary heart disease, strokes, suicide and length of life. They are also less likely to catch colds and recover faster when they do.


Being married rather than being single, divorced or widowed has been strongly associated with more happiness.

However, this may be because people who get married tend to be happier people anyway.

In any case, happily married couples are likely to be happier than those who are single, with better physical and psychological health and longer lives.

People who are unhappily married, however, are no happier than singles.

Surprisingly, having children is no guarantee of higher satisfaction in life, especially if they are under three or teenagers.


Education's impact on happiness is indirect. It increases income and, together, education and earning power will increase a person's social and career opportunities as well as social mobility. The sense of autonomy and personal mastery from this adds to life satisfaction.


Women report higher life satisfaction than men. This may be because they tend to have better social support. Men are more competitive by nature and less likely to seek help or have intimate relationships.

Though women report higher life satisfaction than men, their rates of mental illness are also higher.

This is not so much because men are mentally healthier than women, but because women are more forthcoming about seeking treatment than men. Men tend to mask their depression and turn, instead, to alcohol and violence.


Surprisingly, happiness does not decline with age.

Instead, research shows that satisfaction throughout life follows a U-shape, reaching a minimum in middle age (between age 40 and 50), and then rising again.

This could be because in middle age, human beings are biologically designed to have the drive to accumulate resources and build their families. Hence, they feel more stressed than in other periods of their lives, having to manage their careers, raise children, build up savings and pay off loans.

The rebound in happiness after age 50 may not necessarily be due to higher income or greater family stability, but the wisdom of maturity or having more realistic or fewer aspirations. Between the age of 70 and 80, average happiness begins to dip once more as worsening health begins to take effect.

Source: United Nations World Happiness Report

How Singaporeans scored

The United Nations World Happiness Report looks at two types of happiness.

Questions on evaluative happiness ask people how happy or satisfied they are with their lives as a whole while questions on affective happiness ask them how happy they are at a specific moment or day. A common question is to ask them how happy they were yesterday.

Unlike evaluative happiness, affective happiness is less related to a person's life circumstances. It is less affected by a person's income and health and more influenced by his social network.

Social network also plays an important role in evaluative happiness. Hence, the stronger social ties people have with their friends and family, the happier they are with their lives as a whole, as well as on a daily basis.

Average Cantril ladder (Gallup world poll from 2005 to 2011)

How would you rate your life, on a scale of zero (worst possible life) to 10 (best possible)?

The average Singaporean scored 6.6 out of 10. Singapore ranked 33 out of 156 countries.

Average life satisfaction (Gallup world poll 2007 to 2010)

On a scale of zero (least satisfied) to 10 (most satisfied), how satisfied are you with your life as a whole?

The average Singaporean scored 6.8 out of 10. Singapore was ranked 36 out of 129 countries.

Average happiness (Gallup world poll 2008 to 2011)

On a zero to 10 scale, how happy were you yesterday?

Average Singaporeans scored six out of 10. Singapore ranked 109 out of 148 countries.

Source: United Nations World Happiness Report

The UN survey ranked countries according to how their people scored on the Cantril ladder of satisfaction, developed by American social researcher Hadley Cantril.

This asks people to evaluate the quality of their lives on a ladder scale running from zero to 10, with zero being the worst possible life for them and 10 being the best possible.

Singapore scored 6.6 on the Cantril scale.

The top four happiest countries, all in northern Europe, scored an average of 7.6. The four least happy countries, in sub-Saharan Africa, scored an average of 3.4.

Keeping busy keeps this mum happy
Ms Lisa Choo, 36, often feels she needs 36 hours a day instead of 24.

A typical day for the working mother of three starts at 6am and ends around midnight.

Each day, she prepares breakfast for her son, 61/2, and daughter, three, takes them to school and the childcare centre, then rushes home to be with her youngest, a 14-month-old daughter.

Three days a week, she works eight full hours a day at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital as a senior clinical psychologist.

A born Catholic, she also teaches catechism classes in church on some weeknights and weekends.

Though she has a domestic helper, MsChoo is in the predicament of most mothers with young children of seldom having a moment to herself.

But instead of being resentful, she said, she chooses to count her blessings.

On a scale of zero to 10, with zero for the worst possible life and 10 for the best, Ms Choo rates her life an eight.

She said: 'Life is good. It could be in my genes, as I am generally an optimistic person. But I also enjoy what I do.'

She loves the different roles she plays - as a mother, a psychologist and church volunteer.

'Each role allows me to be a different person and, in the process, I get to grow as a person. This, in turn, makes me perform better in the different roles.'

She gets to be with her children, as well as work part-time at a job she enjoys.

She describes her husband, Brian, 39, who runs his own strategic industrial design consultancy, as her better half.

Ms Choo said in times of crisis, for instance, when a child is ill, she has a stalwart network of support from her domestic helper, parents and husband.

Of course, not everything is rosy. Juggling all her commitments can be challenging.

She said: 'You have to schedule everything. There is little room for spontaneity.'

But she has managed well enough to squeeze in time to attend an hour of Pilates class twice a week - with her husband.

She said: 'We make an effort to create some time alone together.'

The secret to not feeling miserable at having so much on her plate is to give herself some slack and recognise that she does not need to be perfect in everything.

It is something she has learnt over the years, she says, but her training as a psychologist helps.

'When I give talks, I tell people to wake up every day and think about doing things that will make them happy.'

She advises them to come up with a list of positive statements such as 'Today is going to be a great day' and start the day by choosing one that resonates with them.

At the end of the day, she advises them to think about three good things that have happened.

She said: 'I have learnt that happiness can be learnt and trained. A person can be happy if he chooses to be.'

Let's not overthink happiness

Can happiness be measured or even explained?
By Ng Wan Ching, The Straits Times, 17 May 2012

For the first time, the United Nations, using its World Happiness Study, has tried to find out how happy people are.

It found that income and health have little impact on a person's day-to-day happiness. Social support and political stability play more important roles.

But, on a deeper level, can such a personal issue be distilled into a 'science'?

Can governments translate such findings into pro-happiness policies such as adequate housing, health care, food, education and, perhaps, some freedoms?

If that is the case, happiness can be churned out, factory- production style.

According to some teachings, the desire for happiness itself is a form of suffering. It leads us to struggle with experience. Instead of fully experiencing, we filter experiences according to whether they are making us happy or not.

Many philosophers and writers have pointed out that happiness is more than the absence of misery.

Singapore has given its citizens a good substrate upon which happiness can spring. But happiness is not just a single-stop destination. It is a journey punctuated by many highlights.

I felt it the other day when my 10-year-old son, with his playmates, ran up the driveway of a friend's house and they spent a magical afternoon playing with water in a muddy garden.

It was totally unexpected and spontaneous.

Perhaps this is where much of life's happiness stems from.

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