One by one, developed countries are drawing up happiness indices. Their governments realise GDP growth figures alone are a poor measure of people's well-being.
By Andrea Ong
LAST year, Ms J.H Lim, 23, started her first job as a tax associate at an accounting firm.
She quit after seven months, giving up prospects of good pay and career progression to become a physical education teacher at a secondary school.
'I didn't find value or meaning in what I was doing,' she says.
She is now much happier. 'I like sports, I like interacting with the students and I see meaning in encouraging them to enjoy sports and lead a healthy lifestyle at a young age,' says the fitness buff, who ran the Standard Chartered marathon on Sunday.
Several developed countries are going through a soul-search akin to Ms Lim's. They are asking their citizens: Are you happy? What makes you happy?
And they are coming up with indices to measure and track people's happiness levels.
Earlier this week, Japan unveiled a set of draft indicators. The 132 indices put numbers to areas like women's satisfaction with men's participation in childcare, the number of young people who live in isolation, and people's sense of whether they are living as happily as others in the community, reported the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.
By doing so, Japan has become the latest to join the ranks of countries such as Australia, Britain and France, which have acknowledged the need to look beyond pure economic indicators like gross domestic product in assessing their people's well-being.
Two months ago, the topic of happiness came up in Singapore's Parliament when Workers' Party MP Sylvia Lim raised the example of Bhutan, which has a Gross National Happiness index.
She pointed out that Singapore was one of 66 nations to co-sponsor a United Nations resolution initiated by Bhutan in July entitled Happiness: Towards A Holistic Approach To Development.
Ms Lim asked how the Government intended to introduce indicators of happiness, and how these would guide its policies over the next five years.
This sparked a lively debate among MPs about Singaporeans' well-being and the importance of GDP growth.
It also raised two big questions: What is the link between GDP and happiness? Is there a need for Singapore to start measuring its people's happiness?
The happiness paradox
THERE is a growing body of research which suggests that growth in GDP, which adds up all that is produced and consumed in an economy, does not lead to greater happiness.
The paradox was highlighted in 1974 by American economist Richard Easterlin, who found that happiness levels of societies tend to stagnate after a point, even as national wealth continues to rise.
He reviewed his findings last year and concluded that the paradox is usually seen in countries which are developed or rapidly developing. For instance, income per capita has doubled over 20 years in Chile, China and South Korea, but happiness in these places has not kept pace.
The 'Easterlin paradox' appears to be at work in Singapore too, according to research by two National University of Singapore (NUS) business school dons.
Based on three surveys on Singaporeans' well-being and quality of life, conducted over the past seven years, Dr Tambyah Siok Kuan and Associate Professor Tan Soo Jiuan found that happiness levels did not vary much even though GDP grew by an average of 7 per cent each year.
'Despite the quick rebound from the global financial crisis of 2008 to 2009 and the blistering growth rate of 14.5per cent in 2010, Singaporeans are not necessarily happier,' Dr Tambyah and Prof Tan tell Insight.
In fact, the happiness level this year fell by 3.5 points from 72.5 per cent in 2006.
One reason behind the Easterlin paradox is that GDP figures do not capture the stresses and strains in society caused by income inequality and other side-effects of growth.
Dr Tambyah and Prof Tan note that Singapore's 'euphoric economic growth' was accompanied by growing pains, such as a higher cost of living and the strain caused by a foreign worker influx on housing, transport and social ties.
'Singapore citizens perceived that the spoils of success were not adequately shared with them as they felt slighted in the intense competition for jobs, housing and other opportunities,' they add.
A book containing their analyses and findings from this year's survey of 1,500 Singaporeans will be published next year.
Other areas not reflected in GDP measures include work-life balance and satisfaction with life.
Just ask financial analyst Brian Tan, 26. He earns over $110,000 a year - much more than many others his age.
But there is a price. A typical work day for him starts at 8am and ends late at night, with no time for dinner, because Mr Tan has to handle overseas clients. Even on holiday, he is constantly checking e-mail messages on his BlackBerry.
While he enjoys the intellectual challenge and excitement of his job, the lack of a work-life balance takes its toll.
'Sometimes it's very hard to find reasons to be happy when I'm in the office at 2am and I know I have to come back in at 8am,' he says. The bachelor adds wryly that his relationship status on Facebook should say, simply: 'I'm very busy.'
Mr Tan's high income gives him greater purchasing power, but that does not translate into happiness. 'I've felt that I'm spending money just to justify why I'm working so hard,' he says.
'I know I can subsist on much less and still be very happy.'
Economist Nattavudh Powdthavee of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) has another explanation for the Easterlin paradox.
'Human beings care a lot about status. Many people would rather be the second richest person in a poor area, than to live in a rich area where many are better off than them,' says Dr Powdthavee.
Hence, as incomes rise across the board in advanced countries like Singapore, it becomes increasingly harder to improve one's status in relation to others.
Dr Powdthavee offers an example: 'If you tell someone who earns a lot of money to slow down and work less because it's bad for his health, chances are he won't stop unless someone else does. He won't want to fall behind his peers with the same education and income level.'
He adds: 'Money only buys you happiness if it buys you rank and status, but there's not so much rank to go around.'
DR TAMBYAH believes 'the time is ripe' for Singapore to introduce national indicators of happiness and quality of life.
Bhutan has tracked its Gross National Happiness since 1972, when King Jigme Singye Wangchuck coined the term. The index has 33 indicators, including equality, literacy, pollution, corruption and time spent with family.
Happiness indices have gained ground since 2008, when French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy tasked a group of economists and social scientists with studying how economic and social progress can be measured in modern economies.
Led by Nobel Prize-winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, the group's 2009 report called for measures of well-being and sustainability on top of traditional economic indicators.
Mr Sarkozy declared that France would include happiness and well-being in its measures of progress. Other countries have since followed suit, including Britain, which released the results of its first nation-wide survey on well-being last week.
Earlier this year, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released an index called Your Better Life. It applies 11 indicators of well-being to the OECD's 34 member countries. These are a mix of subjective and objective factors like health, work-life balance, housing, income and social capital.
In October, OECD secretary-general Angel Gurria said such measures are important, as promoting growth 'as usual' is no longer an option in the current climate of slowing growth and a looming financial meltdown.
Introducing a similar index in Singapore would come with its own set of challenges, as well-being is subjective.
Still, researchers say Singapore can take a leaf from the 11 OECD indicators and build on existing research.
Psychologist Christie Scollon of the Singapore Management University suggests the Government may be interested in specific areas, such as work satisfaction, finances, leisure time, family and commuting.
'These seem to be hot topics in public debate these days,' she notes. Research also shows that these factors might play a 'a particularly important role in Singaporean conceptions of the good life'.
A snapshot of Singapore
ONE old bugbear is why Singapore tends to do badly in global surveys on happiness, such as the Gallup World Poll on life satisfaction and the Happy Planet Index.
Cultural differences could play a part, says Professor Scollon. Asian countries usually score lower than North America and Western Europe in many world surveys, she notes.
In a study she carried out which compared Singaporeans and Americans, she found that Singaporeans emphasise wealth more in their conception of the good life than Americans. 'Too much emphasis on wealth has been shown to be detrimental to well-being,' she says.
Different cultures also have different norms about what is considered good and desirable. 'Americans strongly value feeling good and being happy. In Asian societies, pleasant emotions are also desirable but less so,' adds Prof Scollon.
But Dr Powdthavee of NTU cautions that international happiness rankings should be taken in context.
The main purpose of happiness indicators is to track how people within a country fare across time and demographic groups, he argues. The information should also be made publicly available for academics and policymakers to study.
Within Singapore, Dr Tambyah would like to see greater collaboration among academics studying happiness.
'There are many research scholars interested in the study of happiness. If we could pool all our resources, along with funding from the government, we might be able to come up with a sustained programme of research that we can track over time,' she says.
But studies like those she and Prof Tan have conducted already serve to provide a snapshot of Singaporeans' happiness. And with a happiness level which has hovered around 70 per cent for the last seven years, it seems Singaporeans may not be that unhappy after all.
Some factors like satisfaction with family life and national pride also keep cropping up when Singaporeans are asked what makes them happy.
For instance, a survey by Grey Singapore marketing agency, released in October, found that Singaporeans were happiest about these two factors, as well as their religion and spirituality.
'Religion provides you with an outlet and gives answers to things that modern science and modern life cannot give answers to,' says Inter-Religious Organisation president Ashvin Desai, 55.
While the Grey Singapore survey's sample size of 200 is not large enough to be statistically representative, its findings on how happiness varies across age groups squares with global trends.
Singaporeans aged 18 to 29 reported the greatest net unhappiness, while the most number of people who said they were very unhappy came from the 30 to 44 age group.
On the other hand, Singaporeans aged 45 to 59 were the happiest.
Research has shown that happiness levels form a U-shape across the ages, typically rising after middle age, says Dr Powdthavee.
Mr Desai, who falls into the happiest age group of Singaporeans, is not surprised by the finding. 'When you are young, you have a lot of aspirations. But when you reach my age, you tend to accept things as they are and be satisfied with what you have.'
Happiness - a work in progress
TO TAKE happiness seriously is not to neglect economic growth.
Psychologist Ng Wei Ting of UniSIM, who has studied the connection between wealth and happiness, says that income remains a moderately strong predictor of life satisfaction.
Factors linked to poor economic growth - such as unemployment - could also make people unhappy.
Some economists have argued that the Easterlin paradox is flawed as within each country, people with higher income tend to report higher satisfaction with life.
Dr Ng and Prof Scollon explain that income could relate differently to various aspects of well-being. Income tends to have a stronger link to people's satisfaction with life as a whole but weaker links to positive and negative feelings.
'Both well-being and economic indicators are important,' says Dr Ng. 'The issue is how to integrate these well-being indicators such that they can supplement traditional economic indicators, and not to replace the latter.'
Singapore's national pledge enshrines the words 'happiness, prosperity and progress'.
In a 1998 interview with The Straits Times, then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew said those words were chosen because 'we wished for a state of well-being opposite to the one we were then in. We were down in the dumps with communal riots, the economy was in bad shape and there was no progress with industrialisation. These words represented our aspirations for the well-being of a people.'
Singapore's circumstances have changed dramatically since then. Perhaps it is time to think anew about how to match those aspirations to the nuts and bolts of policymaking.
Getting to grips with the nebulous idea of happiness is a first step.
As Professor Stiglitz said when unveiling his 2009 well-being report for France: 'What you measure affects what you do. If you don't measure the right thing, you don't do the right thing.'