Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Being happy, relatively speaking

Dec 8, 2010

SINGAPOREANS might be flattered though unsurprised their city-state home is reckoned to be the happiest nation in Asia. The ranking culled from comparative data is the conclusion of American author Dan Buettner, who has made a career of travelling the continents in search of happy people. It's out in a book, his sixth, which should enjoy quite happy sales here. Singapore has by now a decent collection of 'bests' - for infrastructure, service nodes, urban management, probity and the like. Now happiness.

But happiness, however defined, would elude the common conception as applied to life in an over-achieving, unforgiving, high-cost place. Denmark, a perennial No. 1 in happiness stakes, is much higher-cost and only a little less squeezed for space, but the Danes appear to have modelled for themselves an art of living. Stress is alien, leisure an ethos. (Not that this formulation could find fertile soil here.)

One has to look to the criteria to get some perspective. Mr Buettner's book cites non-conventional factors grateful Singaporeans are accustomed to. Things like community tolerance, safety and trust in government among intangibles; good housing, health care and mobility among the tangibles. Economic factors, like prosperity, account for only partial contentment.

Then it makes sense why Singaporeans need not be diffident about being adjudged the happiest people in these parts. The ranking is a validation of the Republic's skill at urban solutions and of responsive government, besides the material prosperity. They do make for easy living. So, take the curtain calls. But there is no need to treat the accolade too seriously. Everything is relative, happiness most of all.

The four-year Gallup World Poll published this year placed Singapore at No. 81 among the 155 nations surveyed. The Nordic states topped the poll. Smiling Thailand was 79, happy go lucky Philippines 94. Bhutan, which invented the concept of gross national happiness, was excluded from the survey. Strange omission. The happiest nation in Asia, according to Gallup? Turkmenistan, at 18 in the world. There must be unfound joy in desert living. Also, it looks incredulous but perpetually crisis-ridden Israel ranked eighth, while the Palestinian territories' 96th slot presumably met most people's estimation. To the victors, not only the spoils but also the joy of living?

The more rankings proliferate, the more numerous the improbable conclusions. Still, an accumulation of little conferments cannot do a nation's image harm. For Singapore, which enjoys a classy brand association, the happiness finding is a nice ribbon to have.

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