Monday, December 6, 2010

Singapore is 'happiest place in Asia'

Dec 5, 2010
US author picks city-state based on factors like tolerance, equality and security
By Tracy Quek

Washington: When American explorer and author Dan Buettner began researching Asia's cheeriest spot for a book on the world's happiest places, he had assumed he would be boarding a plane for spiritual Tibet, exotic Fiji or mysterious Bhutan.

Instead, he found himself in a country some Americans would consider a restrictive nanny state, known more for caning criminals and banning chewing gum than for its sunny disposition.

Singapore is one of four places that Minneapolis-based Mr Buettner profiles in his recently launched book, Thrive, Finding Happiness The Blue Zones Way.

The title references an earlier book, The Blue Zones, the author's 2008 New York Times bestseller about the places where people live the longest and have the highest quality of life in the world.

Mr Buettner bills Thrive, his sixth book, as 'story-driven science that ends with a handbook with how to be happier'.

In it, the 50-year-old single father of three shares lessons on well-being and happiness he gleaned from visiting the happiest places on each of the four continents.

Besides Singapore, he travelled to the Jutland Peninsula in Denmark, Monterrey in Mexico, and San Luis Obispo in California. The book, backed by National Geographic, took five years to research and write.

To identify the happy spots, Mr Buettner relied on data from Gallup, the World Values Survey and the World Database on Happiness which have done comprehensive polls and studies over the past seven decades examining factors that directly impact happiness.

While there are many happiness indices out there, the data from the three organisations are 'by far the most authoritative and authentic', he told The Sunday Times.

Statistics from all three sources pointed to Singapore as the happiest place in Asia, although the city-state may not initially fit in with some people's notion of happiness, he noted.

'Known as a society of workaholics, Singapore has also become famous for its paternalistic government, which strictly enforces laws on the most trivial of infractions, from chewing gum in public to failing to flush a toilet,' he wrote in Thrive.

But Mr Buettner credits one of his chief consultants, sociologist Ruut Veenhoven, who is director of the World Database of Happiness and editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies, for steering him away from the 'usual places'.

Dr Veenhoven advised him that 'the places we imagine as paradises don't measure up when it comes to basic prerequisites for happiness, such as decent food, basic shelter, adequate health care, and mobility', he wrote.

What correlate with happiness on a worldwide level are tolerance, status equality, security, trust, access to recreation and financial security - all of which Singapore has, said Mr Buettner.

In Singapore, people of different ethnicities feel they belong and fit in. Citizens are able to trust their Government and police. Unemployment is low, home ownership is high. The country gives people access to green spaces despite having one of the highest population densities in the world.

As for security, Singapore shows that feeling secure is more important than freedom when it comes to happiness, he said.

'In Singapore, you cannot freely buy pornography, it is harder to start a political party, but if you're a woman, you can walk down the street any time of the day and you can be pretty sure no one is going to bother you.'

For insights on Singapore and the other places he visited, Mr Buettner interviewed a wide range of people, including social scientists, economists, politicians and even comedians, to try to pin down what makes people in each locality so joyful.

He made two trips to Singapore, about a year apart, staying four weeks in all.

In the book's chapter on Singapore, he details interviews with Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew as well as experts who have done studies on happiness including sociologist Dr Tan Ern Ser of Singapore's Institute of Policy Studies and Dr Ho Kong Weng, an economist at the Nanyang Technological University.

He also speaks to private investor turned jewellery designer Celina Lin, chairman of the Community Chest Jennie Chua, as well as Sakae Sushi founder Douglas Foo. Mr Ahmad Nizam Abbas, a 39-year-old lawyer and Madam Noridah Yusoh, a 43-year-old housewife, also get a mention.

Of his choice of interviewees, Mr Buettner said he tried to find 'people who were emblems of the characteristics of happiness. They weren't necessarily the happiest people in Singapore, but they illustrated facets of Singaporean happiness'.

In the book, he describes how he went to great lengths to speak with MM Lee, whom he calls Singapore's 'happiness architect' for putting in place policies that became the building blocks for Singaporeans' happiness.

'I wanted to speak to him because I knew that he was a major player in what has made Singapore what it is today. I wanted to know if he accidentally did it or if he was thinking about it,' said the author.

A scheduled 30-minute meeting turned into a 11/2-hour conversation.

'I was incredibly impressed with Mr Lee. That was a man who had a very good idea of what his people's values were and he is a man of integrity. I know that he has made some tough decisions that have been unpopular, but he has a keen instinct of how to create well-being for people,' said Mr Buettner.

There is no question that Singapore shows that happiness can be manufactured or engineered through government policy, he added.

'When it comes to manufactured happiness, I don't know anybody else on the planet who has done a better job than (MM Lee) has, and I know there will be lots of people laughing at me right now but all you have to do is to look at the well-being indices and the data will back me up on that.'

How happy is MM Lee?

Excerpts from Thrive by Mr Dan Buettner, where the author talks about his interview in 2008 with Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

By now, we had finished our tea. I looked around at Lee's airy office again and was struck by its complete absence of clutter. How suitably his own approach to work captured the very notion he was describing - living out the values he found important. In the course of an afternoon's conversation, he did not mention the pleasures of raising a family, or pride in the fact that his son had succeeded him as prime minister. That might be viewed as a common conceit of the ultra successful, except that my interviews with other Singaporeans progressed along similar lines. It is a culture, for better or worse, where personal and professional identities tend to merge, where careers or businesses become all-consuming.

I rounded off the interview by asking Lee about himself. Did the environment of well-being he created for Singapore work for him? I asked him to rate his happiness on a scale of one 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.'

Seven ways to happiness

Mr Dan Buettner, author of Thrive, gives some tips on happiness.

1 Sleep between 71/2 and 81/2 hours every night. Sleeping less than six hours means you are probably 30 per cent less happy than you should be.

2 Working around 37 hours a week appears to be optimal and having at least six weeks of holiday each year is ideal.

3 Eat a plant-based breakfast. If you eat a meaty, saturated fat-laden breakfast, the oxygen that reaches your muscles and brain is diminished. You will feel sluggish.

4 Exercise for at least half an hour every day. Half an hour of physical activity provides a 12-hour increase in well-being. Time your physical activity before noon.

5 Volunteer more. People who volunteered their time reported higher levels of well-being than those who did not.

6 Socialise at least six hours a day. Hanging out with friends and family correlates with feelings of happiness.

7 Money cannot buy happiness but in the United States, people should strive for an annual income of about US$75,000 (S$98,000) for a family of four.

Beyond that, happiness levels plateau. People who are making a lot more money typically have more stressful jobs, spend too much of their day working, and do not pay attention to their families. They are not socialising or volunteering in general.

Tracy Quek

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