I can’t think of any other country that takes happiness so seriously. It seems that at least once a year, Singaporeans must engage in a national discussion about whether they are happy or not, why they are happy or not, why they should be happy or not, and how to be happy or not.
In 2012, a Gallup study claimed that we are the unhappiest country in the world. That generated a lot of soul-searching. Then in 2016, the World Happiness Report named Singapore as the happiest country in the Asia-Pacific region. That got us scratching our heads – either the definitions of happiness used in both studies were vastly different, or we have schizophrenic mood swings.
Then in recent weeks, people got unhappy with how happy Nas Daily made us out to be – because heaven forbid that we allow a foreigner to be happy about how happy we are! Unless that foreigner is Neil Humphreys – then that’s OK because he lived in Toa Payoh for ten years, was vice-chairman of the Tanjong Pagar United Fan Club and acted as Sir Stamford Raffles in Talking Cock The Movie.
About a year ago, another foreigner told the whole world how happy the sunny island of Singapura is. Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow and New York Times best-selling author, wrote an article in Nat Geo that praised Singapore as one of the happiest places on Earth. The ever-cheery Mothership team picked it up and summarised Buettner’s claims in an article that raised incredulous eyebrows all over the country.
Buettner lays out three different versions of happiness in Costa Rica, Denmark and Singapore, and seems to place them on equal footing. But from his own anecdotal snapshots of the three countries, I see a glaring difference between these three types of happiness.
Happiness in Costa Rica and Denmark are linked to Pleasure and Purpose respectively. Buettner’s happy Costa Ricans are portrayed as simple folk, full of lighthearted mirth and humour, basking in the joy and love of family and friends. The happy Danes are able to pursue their most cherished passions because their basic needs are provided for by the government, allowing them to ascend Maslow’s hierarchy with ease.
Meanwhile, happiness in Singapore is associated with Pride, or “life satisfaction”. This apparently stems from the success that most Singaporeans are able to achieve in a mobile society through their own hard work. In an annoyingly trite depiction of this success, popularised even more by Crazy Rich Asians, Buettner highlights the luxurious sports car and multi-million-dollar house of Douglas Foo, founder of Sakae Sushi, along with other trappings of our ultra-modern and opulent city-state.
Should these 3 Ps – Pleasure, Purpose and Pride – be placed side by side? I think not. Pleasure and purpose are defined individually, while the pride of success is largely socially constructed, at least in Singapore’s context. In other words, Costa Ricans and Danes can still be happy regardless of personal circumstances or society’s opinions. But Singaporeans are happy only in comparison with others.
According to Buettner’s depiction of life in Singapore, personal wealth and social status form the bedrock of citizens’ happiness. He makes this quite clear by suggesting that happy Singaporeans “tend to be financially secure (and) have a high degree of status.” Discussions about wealth tend to invite comparison with others. Status is also comparative by definition. So then, happiness becomes a matter of social comparison, which dovetails seamlessly with our national culture of kiasuism – being “scared to lose”. Happiness is set by society and not by ourselves, robbing us of our autonomy.
How about those who are not financially secure and don’t have a high degree of status? Where is their happiness? It’s telling that Buettner’s happy Costa Rican is broke, his happy Dane earns a modest salary, and his happy Singaporean is a multi-millionaire with a trophy case of business awards. Even the choice of photos reveals the stark contrast between these forms of happiness. The images used in the segment on Costa Rica show merry dancers in a bar and a jubilant family surrounding a bubbly baby. The portion on Denmark has a photo of children harvesting their own vegetables.
And the images of happy Singapore? A rich father buying a Porsche for his son. Girls partying on a rented yacht. A chic woman’s reflection in the storefront window of a showroom at Marina Bay Sands.
Perhaps the primary reason for Singaporeans’ vitriolic reaction towards Nas Daily’s portrayal of Singapore as an “almost perfect country” is that we have embraced the misguided notion that happiness is denominated in dollar bills. That explains why one of the rants directed at Nas complained about CPF contribution rates, the high cost of HDB flats, and the imminent rise in GST. Of course, no one will deny that financial security and material comforts do contribute to happiness, and that poverty is miserable. But happiness that is solely based on our bank accounts is volatile and fleeting.
I’m no authority on happiness, and I’m certainly not a bundle of joy. But I’m sure many would agree with me when I say that we need to decouple our idea of happiness and fulfilment from material goods and social status. And we need to do it fast, if we know what’s good for us.
This is an expansion of a Facebook post I published in October 2017.