02 Oct 2012

The recent interest in happiness is not surprising when seen in the wider context of global interest on happiness research. How do young Singaporeans fare, and what challenges lie ahead? Kang Soon Hock reports.

The recent interest in happiness is not surprising when seen in the wider context of global interest on happiness research. How do young Singaporeans fare, and what challenges lie ahead? Kang Soon Hock reports.

Of late, happiness has been the subject of conversation for many young Singaporeans. Most recently, it figured as part of the on-going “Our Singapore Conversation”, a governmentled initiative on the future of Singapore involving Singaporeans and gathers their “aspirations, hopes and ideas of a Singapore that Singaporeans want in the future.” Last year, the local media reported that younger Singaporeans were not as happy as their older counterparts based on a survey report released by a marketing communications agency. Early this year, the United Nations released the first World Happiness Report edited by John Helliwell, Richard Layard, and Jeffrey Sachs. In that report, Singapore was ranked among the happiest countries in East Asia.

These research findings present seemingly contradictory observations. While Singapore does not rank poorly on happiness on the global stage, it would appear that young Singaporeans are not as happy compared with older Singaporeans. This, however, is not unusual when we consider the relationship between age and happiness. Utilising data from Germany, Australia, and Britain, this was characterised as a “late wave” by economists Paul Frijters and Tony Beatton in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, where many more people are reported to be happier at the later stages of their lives.

The recent interest in happiness is not surprising when seen in the wider context of global interest on happiness research. Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index is an oft-cited example (see next article) and indicates a movement away from primarily focusing on traditional economic measures of household income to encompass other indicators—for example, from the other spheres of society, work and social relationships— that has been presented in great detail by psychologists Ed Diener and Martin Seligman in their article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest published in 2004. More recently, a number of surveys have also measured different dimensions of happiness, the more prominent of which were included in the United Nations’ World Happiness Report cited earlier, the Gallup World Poll, and the World Values Survey.

Research into the area of happiness is not new, and from the myriad of research one clear message that resonates is that while money contributes to one’s happiness, it is but a small part of the happiness puzzle. Economist Richard Easterlin, in his article published in Daedalus in 2004 entitled “The Economics of Happiness”, observed that most people could be happier if they paid more attention to family life and their health as opposed to the endless pursuit of money. Easterlin also suggests that marriage is far more important in determining one’s happiness, and this is best illustrated in his example where previously divorced individuals who remarry are more likely to report greater happiness levels comparable to those who remain married.

In Singapore, the latest marriage and parenthood trends, released earlier this year by the National Population and Talent Division under the Prime Minister’s Office, reported increasing singlehood rates among those aged between 30 and 34. Taking into account the earlier findings on young Singaporeans being an unhappy lot in the country and positive effects to individual happiness by being married, it does make us pause to think if the very delays in transitioning to a married state for some may have contributed to this.


Aside from this, there is also evidence to show that social interactions between family members, friends, and neighbours have a significant influence on an individual’s happiness. In terms of dollars and cents, increases in such interactions are valued up to an additional £85,000 in terms of life satisfaction based on research carried out by Nattavudh Powdthavee employing data from the British Household Panel Survey. Bruno Frey, a behavioural economist, has also offered other conditions— for example, marriage, unemployment and volunteer work—which are hypothesised to have an effect on individual happiness.

The YSC series is a programme designed and organised by the Institute of Policy Studies to reach out to outstanding young Singaporeans, from the ages of 25 to 35, for a national dialogue on issues of importance. This year’s participants were primarily from leadership levels in government, business, civil society, and the arts, and the conference concluded with a dialogue session with Mr Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Education.

Happiness and creativity

For one, there is evidence to suggest that areas such as volunteerism in the community can help to build one’s social capital as well as possibly increase one’s sense of well-being in the process. However, in a fast-paced society such as Singapore, it may be a challenge for many young Singaporeans.

The environment we live in also has an effect on the level of happiness, as noted in Happiness, Economics and Politics: Towards a Multi-Disciplinary Approach, edited by Amitava Krishna Dutt and Benjamin Radcliff. In the local context, it is a pertinent issue especially in land-scarce Singapore, where the acquiring of land for development has also brought to the forefront tensions between development and heritage. These factors will also have further influence on the happiness of young Singaporeans, which in turn influences the level of creativity among the younger population as there is evidence to link creativity with happiness based on research conducted by Harvard Business School’s Teresa Amabile. With scant natural resources apart from its human capital, an unhappy populace devoid of creative energy would be detrimental to enterprises and businesses here that thrive on it.

In view of these underlying issues, the theme for the Young Singaporeans Conference (YSC) held by the Institute of Policy Studies on 26 September 2012 focused on happiness—“Are Young Singaporeans Happy?” The conference covered the overarching questions: (1) if young Singaporeans are happy, what are the areas that they identify with that make them happy; (2) if they are not, what can be done to give rise to happiness among them, and to a larger extent, the nation as a whole; and (3) aside from government, how can other sectors of society help to build or improve upon the foundations for a happy society?

Kang Soon Hock is a Research Fellow at the LKY School, and also a member of the Housing Development Board (HDB) Research Advisory Panel. His email is