Thursday, December 16, 2010

A happy nation of grumblers

Dec 16, 2010


Appearing happy seems to be a social taboo in Singapore

By Jeremy Au Yong

EAVESDROP on any coffee shop conversation, and chances are you will hear complaints of how tough life is in Singapore. If you believe the kopi tiam chatter, this is the picture you would get of life here: Every day, weary Singaporeans leave the flats they can barely afford, take a long, overcrowded bus or MRT ride for which they may be overcharged, to get to a job that they fear losing to a cheaper foreign worker.

So, it must have been quite bewildering for some Singaporeans - including me - to read that American explorer and author Dan Buettner considers Singapore one of the happiest places in the world.

My initial instinct was to dismiss the views of a foreigner who has spent all of four weeks in Singapore, and whose research seems to go little further than interviewing a handful of members from the country's upper rungs.

After all, other surveys rank Singapore as middle-of-the-road unhappy. The Happy Planet Index released last year, for instance, ranks Singapore 49th out of 143 countries - behind nearly all our Asean neighbours. This seems more intuitively in sync with the picture of Singaporeans as I know it.

But then, Mr Buettner's assertions are also based on a happiness survey. He 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 impact happiness directly.

And he used these to identify the happiest places on earth. From there, he began to study why these places were so happy.

The World Database of Happiness, which, like the Happy Planet Index, is also a survey asking people how happy they are, seems to have caught us in a good mood. Poll results put us as the second happiest place in Asia, behind the people of the United Arab Emirates.

When looking at why a place is happy, Mr Buettner considered factors that one may not have traditionally thought had that much to do with happiness - things like community tolerance, safety, trust in government, good housing, health care and social mobility.

On that scorecard, he found that Singapore did very well.

But his findings seem to fly in the face of daily experience here. Singaporeans, after all, are champion complainers.

So the question is: How happy are we really? And if we are as happy as Mr Buettner says, why do we always complain and seem so grumpy?

I did not have the means to conduct my own nationwide happiness survey, so I settled on an informal poll of one - myself.

And I found that when I actually thought about it, I ended up counting my blessings more than my misfortunes.

I ranked my happiness at seven on a scale of one to 10, which turns out to be consistent with the average 6.9 score for Singapore recorded by the World Happiness Database.

Then, I asked a friend how happy she thought I was, and she gave me a five. Apparently, I complain a lot.

That, for me, explains the apparent gap between my assessment of Singapore's happiness and Mr Buettner's.

You see, it has become part of our culture to amplify our unhappiness and diminish our joy in public. Do otherwise, and you will find yourself ostracised.

In other words, appearing happy is a social taboo here.

Just think about every time you have asked someone how they are doing. If they are having a bad day, they will quite readily declare how rotten times are and how difficult life is.

And if you are not just making idle chit-chat, the two of you may even launch into a traditional 'bitch-off' to see who can produce the more compelling litany of life's misfortunes.

Conversations like this might end with one party conceding: 'You win, your life sucks more than mine.'

And even if you ask someone who is having a pretty good day how he is, the most positive response you are going to get is 'so-so' or 'okay'.

The person may have just won the lottery, received a big raise and discovered he is going to become a father all on the same day, and the most you are going to get out of him is 'not bad'.
And as every Singaporean knows, that understated 'not bad' translates to 'very good, but I don't dare say it in case you think I am showing off or worse, in case the gods are listening and I get bad luck after saying it'.

It is rare to hear someone declare they are having a 'great' or 'fantastic' day. Chances are, we would not know how to proceed with such a line of conversation. A likely rejoinder would be to bring the person down a notch: 'Oh, good for you. If only we could all be so lucky.'

The end result is social intercourse where no one dares to express happiness, but everyone enjoys sounding grumpy.

Indeed, if one day we were to have nothing to complain about, we would have nothing to say to each other. All this adds up to everyone projecting a public image that is quite a bit unhappier than they really are.

This would explain why Singaporeans complain a lot and seem to be unhappy in public, but confess to relative joy under the cover of an anonymous survey.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with that - some might call it a case of humility and good manners - but the danger is if we start to believe our own unhappy hype.

My own solution to avoiding this trap has been to take a step back once in a while and conduct a frank assessment of how unhappy I actually am.

I also frequently indulge in activities that make me happy: Having a good meal, sleeping in on weekends and, of course, gathering with friends and family...for a good grumble.

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