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Getting a measure of happiness
Publication Date : 07-10-2013
If global happiness surveys can be thought of as emotional thermometers, the mercury levels for Singapore would have been see-sawing over the last month.
Most dramatic was the Gallup poll on happiness, where Singapore registered the greatest leap in positive emotions worldwide, entering the top half of 143 countries after being deemed the least positive country last year.
But last month, Singapore emerged top in Asia and 30th worldwide in the United Nations' second World Happiness Report.
What can be made of these fluctuating numbers? Some have questioned the reliability of such studies, especially since they touch on "fluffy" ideas like happiness.
But while evaluating happiness is indeed an evolving science, this should not derail the conversation on well-being which has been picking up steam around the world and in Singapore. The larger picture to bear in mind is not rankings but how well-being data can improve policy-making by offering a better understanding of human behaviour and emotions.
As the economist Jeffrey Sachs, who contributed to the 153-page UN report, notes: "There is now a rising worldwide demand that policy be more closely aligned with what really matters to people as they themselves characterise their well-being."
The question to ask, therefore, is not so much how well Singapore did in XYZ world ranking but how best to put a finger on the pulse of people's well-being.
One point to note is that this week's Gallup findings and last month's UN report measure different aspects of well-being.
The Gallup release covered only "positive affect", where respondents are asked questions on how they felt the day before, such as whether they felt well rested, treated with respect and whether they had smiled or laughed a lot.
The UN report, on the other hand, measures people's happiness with life as a whole. It also uses Gallup data, but for a different question on what is known as the Cantril ladder: how people rate their lives from zero (the worst possible life) to 10 (best possible). Singapore's UN ranking improved three places this year but Singaporeans were slightly less happy with their lives, scoring 6.55 - a whisker shy of 6.6 last year.
More importantly, this year's UN report shows how the conscientious study of well-being can be refined over time to add to the discourse on policy-making.
The report zooms in on six factors that explain 75 per cent of the variation in scores over time and among countries: real gross domestic product per capita, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, and generosity.
There has been a tendency for debates on well-being in Singapore to end in an impasse, with one side saying the Government has focused on growth at all costs, to the detriment of Singaporeans' happiness, and the Government saying its goal has always been growth to bring about a better life for all.
The UN report sheds clarity on the issue. The factors it deems more objective - GDP and life expectancy - are strong determinants of life evaluation but have little effect on emotions.
Perceived corruption affects life evaluation and negative emotions, but freedom from corruption does not have a corresponding effect on positive emotions.
But the other factors - having someone to count on in times of trouble, perceived freedom to make life choices, and generosity in donating to charity - have strong links with both positive emotions and life evaluation.
Singapore has undeniably done well in the first three areas. But these may have led to greater life satisfaction without a corresponding rise in positive emotions.
To boost happiness, perhaps policymakers could pay more attention to the other three factors, tough as they are to legislate, especially since they are also part and parcel of the goal to build a caring and inclusive society.
But well-being data extends beyond signalling directions. Former British civil service head Gus O'Donnell argues in a chapter of the UN report that using well-being as an approach can change the shape of policy-making.
This is particularly powerful in areas cutting across portfolios like climate change, he says: "Focusing on well-being allows a common language and a common metric to compare different policies and outcomes."
The same could apply to Singapore, where there is a trend of greater inter-agency cooperation on issues like ageing.
Lord O'Donnell also illustrates how a "well-being approach" could change the usual cost-benefit analyses. In health care, studies show that reductions in physical functions may matter less to well-being than reductions in mental health. This could have a bearing on how treatment is tailored and resources are allocated.
In education, a standard way of measuring its value is to look at the increase in lifetime earnings resulting from educational intervention.
Lord O'Donnell argues that if this definition is widened, such as by urging students to pick courses based on the well-being of those working in a field, it could lead to more entering teaching, health and social services.
What of Singapore? To be sure, policies here have moved towards such well-being approaches, in health care and education for instance. But the question remains, how do we assess their impact when there is no corresponding measure of well-being?
It is like trying to keep water at a temperature that is not too hot and not too cold without using a thermometer. The only warning sign is when bubbles appear as the water starts to boil.
Singapore does not have an official well-being index, though that has not stopped organisations and academics from stepping forward with their own, adding to the conversation and forming bases that can be built on in the future.
Earlier this year, the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre released the Singapore Social Health Project which measured nine areas like income security, community cohesion and values.
Another notable study is by National University of Singapore dons Siok Kuan Tambyah and Tan Soo Jiuan, whose surveys of Singaporeans' happiness and well-being over some 15 years are valuable for being among the few local academic records of how well-being has changed with time.
One finding stood out. In 2006, 52 per cent were very proud to be Singaporean. But in a similar question in the 2011 survey, this fell to 21.9 per cent. To me, this was a red flag of the growing anomie some Singaporeans may have felt as a result of the influx of foreigners.
With the benefit of hindsight, I wonder if having more such dipsticks of Singaporeans' well-being could have painted a better picture of their feelings before things bubbled over in the 2011 General Election and the Population White Paper uproar.
But things may be changing.
The recent Our Singapore Conversation survey, for instance, had sections similar to global well-being polls.
In a more complex era, it is even more imperative that people can trust that policymakers are acting with both heart and mind.
So, thermometers in hand, let's talk about well-being.