The pursuit of happiness

I wasn’t up with the lark and didn’t go for a walk in the park and no girl told she loved me, but it was a beautiful day, my beautiful Sunday, with the big bold headline saying why I should be thanking my lucky stars. “Singapore is the happiest place in Asia,” it said, right on the front page.

There wasn’t a grumpy face in sight as I bought the paper and walked through the market for breakfast at the hawker centre. It buzzed with people chatting over dosa or chicken rice and steaming cups of coffee.

No place in Asia is happier than this, reported The Sunday Times, the Sunday edition of The Straits Times.

It was quoting from a book published by the National Geographic magazine.

American explorer Dan Buettner has been seeking the keys to longevity and happiness for the past five years. He wrote the 2008 bestseller, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.

Now he has come out with Thrive; Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way.

Singapore, he says, is the happiest place in Asia. I couldn’t find the book in the National Library. But the Straits Times correspondent in Washington saw it and filed a report, which was splashed on the front page of The Sunday Times.

The good news spelt more excitement to come. The government has ordered a review of the parliamentary constituencies, whose boundaries are redrawn before every election. So the papers are doing their bit to keep the voters informed. The Straits Times is highlighting the good things about Singapore.

Will the internet make any difference in the next elections, it asked last Saturday. “The legal framework in Singapore governing cyberspace has a chilling effect on public discussions,” Arun Mahizhnan of the local think tank, Institute of Policy Studies, told the paper. But the reporter added, “The experts say Singapore still lacks a crucial element for an online uprising: there is no groundswell of unhappiness.”

The next day, The Sunday Times reported Singapore is the happiest place in Asia. “Singapore shows that feeling secure is more important than freedom”, it said and quoted Buettner: “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.”

There are other reasons for happiness, too. Home ownership is almost 90 per cent and unemployment just over 2 per cent in Singapore. The people know they are better off than others.

Buettner didn’t rave about Singapore without a reason. He consulted the World Database of Happiness, among other things. You can check the website, too, and see Singaporeans are happier than other Asians.

But why are Asians are less happy than people in the West and large parts of Latin America? That’s what I asked myself as I looked at the World Database of Happiness. It‘s based on surveys where people were asked how happy they were with life as a whole and covers the last decade. Countries are ranked on a scale of zero to 10.

Costa Rica appears to be the happiest country followed by Denmark and Belgium. Singapore is among the top 40, below all the rich Western nations except France and Italy. Several Latin American countries are in the top 30 and two from the Middle East – Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

India and Russia are equally unhappy, but not as unhappy as Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. Unhappiest in Asia are Afghanistan, followed by Iraq and Lebanon.

Peace and prosperity alone cannot explain why some countries are happier than others. Then Singapore, Japan and France would have been happier than Argentina, Nicaragua and Colombia. Nicaragua has been through a civil war, Argentina wracked by financial crises, Colombia has its drug lords and guerillas. Yet they are happier than every Asian country. The Middle East, despite unrest, is happier on the whole than South Asia.

Could it be people have not only different lifestyles but different expectations, too, in different corners of the world?

I could find only two common characteristics shared by more than 30 countries which scored seven out of 10 on the World Database of Happiness. Almost all of them play football. At least half of them have played in the World Cup. And all but two – Israel and the United Arab Emirates – have Christian majorities.

Not that has anything necessarily to do with happiness. Largely Christian, too, is one of the saddest places on earth: Zimbabwe.

Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew made an interesting remark when he was interviewed by Buettner. He gave himself six out of 10 on the happiness scale. “And what would it take to reach nine?” asked Buettner. “Nothing would take me to nine,” replied Lee. “Then I would be complacent, flabby and walk into the sunset.”

Yes, you want to be happy, not complacent. For then you wouldn’t know how much happier you could be!

Oh, before I sign off, no country has reached nine yet on the World Database of Happiness, so there’s no known case of terminal happiness.

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