How did Singapore change from one of the happiest countries in the world to the unhappiest? “A recent Gallup report shows that Singapore’s wealthy population is the unhappiest — less happy than the populations of Iraq, Haiti, Afghanistan, and Syria,” reports CNN.
Yet only two years ago, in 2010, National Geographic published a book covering Singapore and Denmark as two of the happiest countries in the world—based on earlier Gallup polls.
Dan Buettner wrote in Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way:
Independent studies conducted between 2000 and 2009 reported higher levels of happiness in Singapore than in any other Asian nation. The World Values Survey found 95 per cent of the people in Singapore were very happy or quite happy. In 2005-2009 the Gallup organization interviewed a cross-section of people in each of more than 130 countries around the globe. Citizens were asked to rank their current circumstances on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the “best possible life”. Researchers asked Singaporeans if they felt well rested, treated with respect, experienced smiling or laughing, engaged in learning or interest, or felt enjoyment, and also about negative experiences, including physical pain, worrying, sadness, stress, depression or anger, to arrive at a measure of daily experiences. Singaporeans rated a 6.9, and only 2 per cent reported feeling depressed.
2011 Gallup poll
People were asked the same questions in 2011 – whether they felt happy or sad the day before the interview – and only 46 per cent in Singapore reported having positive emotions, says Gallup.
The countries where the lowest percentage of people reported positive emotions were Singapore (46%), Armenia (49%), Iraq (50%), Georgia, Yemen and Serbia (52% each), (53%), Lithuania and Madagascar (54% each), Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Haiti, Togo and Macedonia (55% each), according to the Gallup report.
“Latin Americans are the most positive people in the world, with their region being home to eight of the top 10 countries for positive emotions worldwide,” reported Gallup. But the other two countries in the top 10 are close to Singapore: Thailand and the Philippines. The top 10 countries where the highest percentage of people reported positive emotions are Panama and Paraguay (85% each), El Salvador and Venezuela (84% each), Trinidad and Tobago, and Thailand (83% each), Guatemala and the Philippines (82% each), Ecuador and Costa Rica (81% each).
Gallup measured positive emotions in 148 countries and areas in 2011 using five questions. These questions ask people whether they experienced a lot of enjoyment the day before the survey and whether they felt respected, well-rested, laughed and smiled a lot, and did or learned something interesting.
Gallup says: “These data may surprise analysts and leaders who solely focus on traditional economic indicators. Residents of Panama, which ranks 90th in the world with respect to GDP per capita, are among the most likely to report positive emotions. Residents of Singapore, which ranks fifth in the world in terms of GDP per capita, are the least likely to report positive emotions.”
Singapore’s happy neighbours
But rich countries do rank among the happier countries though not in the top 10. Canada and the Netherlands share the 11th position with Colombia and Malaysia, with 80 per cent of the respondents in each country reporting positive emotions. Denmark is 12th on the list, sharing the spot with Honduras, Kuwait, Oman and Indonesia – another neighbour of Singapore. In each of these countries, 79 per cent of the respondents experienced positive emotions.
New Zealand (78%), Britain (77%), America, China and Switzerland (76% each) and Australia (75%) also reported high positive emotions. So did the United Arab Emirates (77%), France and Germany (74%) and Japan (72%). In Hong Kong, 69 per cent of the respondents reported positive emotions. South Korea ranked relatively low, with 63 per cent reporting positive emotions, and India (57%) was even lower than Pakistan (58%).
But why is Singapore at the bottom of the list?
That is not explained in the report on the Gallup website, which does not say why positive emotions are more widespread in some countries than in others.
However, things may have changed since the Gallup poll. It was conducted in 2011, the year when the ruling People’s Action Party won the Singapore general election by the lowest margin since independence, securing 60.1 per cent of the votes, though retaining 81 of the 87 seats in the election. The government has subsequently introduced new policies to address people’s concerns.
Buettner’s account of Singapore
Buettner visited Singapore when it was reputed to be the happiest country in Asia. He spoke to Tan Ern Ser at the Institute of Policy Studies among others. Buettner wrote:
“Happiness here is largely rooted in the fact that the government has seen to the fundamentals of well-being,” said Tan… The country is well-run, he went on to say… There is almost no severe poverty, he said…
“People do grumble about the rules,” Tan said…“People like freedom, but they also want stability and security… My theory of happiness is that if you are hopeful and confident of getting you want in life, then you are happy. If you feel your path is always going to be blocked, then you’re not going to be happy. Singapore makes sure your path is not blocked.” From Tan’s point of view, people in Singapore are willing to give up certain freedoms to gain greater safety and opportunity.
For another perspective, I travelled across town to meet Dr Ho Kong Wee, an economist at Nanyang Technological University. When I asked Dr Ho why Singapore outperforms the rest of Asia in terms of happiness, he pointed first to Singapore’s remarkable economic growth. During the past 40 years, he said, the wealth of the average Singaporean has multiplied 11 times – the fastest growth of any economy in the history of the world… The ensuing upward spiral has created a feeling of constant progress toward the “good life”.
Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew
Buettner also spoke to Lee Kuan Yew. And here is what he wrote:
“So what do you think are the ingredients to Singaporean happiness?” I asked.
“What we set out to do was create a society which was efficient, orderly, well-educated, cultivated, courteous, learning the arts, culture, dance, et cetera, not just making a living and caring for each other,” he said…
“You had the advantage of building a nation from the bottom up,” I said.
“We had the advantage first of an immigrant population,” he clarified. “They have left their secure moorings – China, India, Indonesia – and come here to make good. So they are more willing to change than people in their own countries. Immigrants and first- and second-generation descendants of immigrants are willing to try new forms to succeed…”
I rounded off the interview by asking Lee about himself. Did the environment of well-being he created work for him? I asked him to rate his happiness on a scale of 1 to 10.
“Personally,” he said after a moment’s reflection, “when I was prime minister, I would say five. Now I would say six because I don’t have that day-to-day fret.”
“And what would it take to get to nine?”
“Nothing would take me to nine,” he said. “Then I would be complacent, flabby and walk into the sunset.”