The Question of Human Happiness: Happiness is not for sale

I refer to the article of Seah Chiang Nee, “Happiness is not for sale”, (Insight Down South, The Star Saturday, October 27).

happiness_singaporeI overwhelmingly concur to his central observation that: “Singaporeans continue to find that prosperity and joy are not identical, or even compatible.”

I also agree with the Workers Party Chairman Sylvia Lim in his timely suggestion that it was time for Singapore now to “focus on happiness as a national goal”.

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To the viewpoint of Khaw that Bhutan was no Shangri-La on earth, I strongly disagree.

Further, my position is the same with regard to the consistent position of the former Prime Minister (now Minister Mentor) Lee Kuan Yew who kept on saying that “building GDP must take precedence above all else.”

Yes, I agree in a certain extent to the former premier that “with prosperity you can do many things; without it, trouble.”

It seems to me that both Minister Khaw and the senior statesman of Singapore are totally wrong in their view. Prosperity does not necessarily means that various social problems would be eliminated. I concede that it might considerably reduce some economic issues and mitigate societal complaints, but to claim that it will solve the whole problem of the total body politic is absurd, preposterous and myopic.

In the metaphorical sense, the GDP of one’s country may settle the issue of the people’s stomachs and pockets, yet the determinative question is: could it also settle and answer the issues and demands of the people with regard to their psychological needs, intellectual pursuits, cultural aspirations and spiritual well-being?

The author is correct in saying that:

“The Government has come under pressure to put less emphasis on materialistic pursuits to give higher priority to people’s welfare – hence the interest in Bhutan.

“To many Singaporeans, happiness means wealth, despite the rat race, rather than Bhutan’s quiet spiritual harmony.

“Money-wise, it’s a rather one-sided comparison. The Republic’s per capita GDP is US$56,532 (RM171,858) to Bhutan’s US$2,299 (RM6,989).”

And his question is totally in point:

“So, how much happier are Singaporeans by comparison, informed people are beginning to ask.”

That is the question!

Yes, Singapore may be the richest country in the world, but it does not mean that it is also the happiest people on earth.

As the writer grimly laments:

“However, I found that many young Singaporeans, despite their materialistic outlook, do not see their type of modernity and relentless pursuit of wealth as a better model for anyone.

“A common topic in recent discussions was the unhappiness of young Singaporeans over the rising social tension caused by stressful living and overcrowding.

“They have told ministers they want greater government efforts to build a more gracious society. Others want more attention to people’s welfare.”

There seems to me as sense of irony and contradiction here. As the author himself directly narrated. After the findings of Singapore economic superiority, immediately the people reacted with angry, foul language over the Web.

They are rich, no doubt about it! The question is: why the people are angry, mad and disgusted? What is the root cause of their hate, disgust and angst? Why they are unhappy?

The new Minister of Culture, Community and Youth, Wong attributed this to stress and tension caused by a globalised world and competition.

“Perhaps it is also a reflection of our present circumstances – we live in a globalised world of rapid change, forcing us to compete like never before.

“And these kinds of changes and challenges cause stress and tension. So they make people worry about the future, and sometimes people get riled.”

Yes, the minister is correct in his reading of this phenomenon, yet it is my fervent view that his analysis is incomplete.

Consider the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2011 findings that says that although Singaporeans may be the world’s wealthiest people, “they are not necessarily a happy lot”.

Bull’s eye! That is the point!

Further, the Business Times reported last year that “Singaporeans were a gloomy people.”

I do not entirely buy the argument that the causes of the people’s disgust are solely on account of their being worried concerning their property prices, taxi fares and inconsistent public transport. There is more to the problem that these given variables. It may be true that “much of the angst stemmed largely from the middle class”, yet how about those people who are living at the lower stratum of society? If the middle class themselves are unhappy, then it follows with more reason that those below them are much unsatisfied.

I vehemently disagree that “happiness is, of course, a subjective emotion” though I partially agree that the “world rankings depend on the criteria used.”

Indeed, “frequently quoted is the Happy Planet Index (HPI), which ranks Singapore a lowly 90th out of 151 countries – based on happiness, life expectancy and environmental sustainability.”

Again, we return to the question of happiness.

The Greek word for happiness is eudaimonia. The other translation is welfare, however, there is a general consensus among the commentators that “human flourishing” is the more accurate translation.

Etymologically, it consists of the words “eu” (“good”) and “daimōn” (“spirit”).

According to Wikipedia:

“One important move in Greek philosophy to answer the question of how to achieve eudaimonia is to bring in another important concept in ancient philosophy, “arete” (“virtue”). Aristotle says that the eudaimon life is one of “virtuous activity in accordance with reason” [1097b22–1098a20].

“And even Epicurus who argues that the eudaimon life is the life of pleasure maintains that the life of pleasure coincides with the life of virtue. So the ancient ethical theorists tend to agree that virtue is closely bound up with happiness (areté is bound up with eudaimonia).”

So, for the Greeks, being happy demands that a person must be virtuous! Meaning, said individual is governed by moral principles and ethical values. More than the material possessions and financial benefits, the ancient Greeks gave a strong emphasis with the different set of virtues such as wisdom, justice, temperance, courage and friendship.

In the words of Socrates, chastising the Athenians:

“Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth or the best possible state of your soul.

“… it does not seem like human nature for me to have neglected all my own affairs and to have tolerated this neglect for so many years while I was always concerned with you, approaching each one of you like a father or an elder brother to persuade you to care for virtue.”

It is in this sense that to true happiness is not equated with any material things, because happiness is a life of purpose govern and rule by reason and wisdom.

To the Greeks, the pocket that is full is worthless if the mind is empty and the soul is lacking.

Hence, to be happy means to be virtuous, wise and content in one’s life.

To them, the most important thing is the development and progression of one’s soul! Now, that’s happiness, indeed!


7 Replies to “The Question of Human Happiness: Happiness is not for sale”

  1. Money can not by true love, or happiness…everyone knows that. BUT BUT BuT,
    those things can be rented. You know you do not own it, so it is not really yours and therefore not real, but it almost works. ALMOST, CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR, u kno? too bad.
    Money just makes things easier to accomplish, ask any crooked filippine politician.

  2. A good but incomplete philosophical view on happiness. I admire the Greeks for putting up metaphysical concepts on the table.(spirit, ethics, etc.) Yet it still begs the question of what is the ultimate point of living. If it is just to be happy,(which the article does not assert)then I am afraid that life is really not that purposeful. As mortals, we instinctively yearn for something that is beyond death, even to overcome death itself.(think of the phrase “we want to live forever”)

    In this light. I can only see happiness as worth it when it is tied to the concept of immortality in which I can phrase out as “a never ending happiness”. I do suggest sir if you can put up philosophical articles that has theistic implications.

    In general, I highly appreciate this post.

  3. “The unexamined life is not worth living” -Socrates. Live to government the wellbeing of the proletariat! Seen this movie and it’s bonkers. Life, Liberty, and The Pursuit Of Happiness belongs to the person in any fit and it is his responsibility not the government to make determination. ‘Portnoy’s complaint’ is laments of a few misguided kids and perhaps they are suffering from asphyxia, better yet, why don’t they trade places with the Filipinos who are purported happy because they are poor.
    “I see no benefit in poor” – Mark Twain

  4. “They are rich, no doubt about it! The question is: why the people are angry, mad and disgusted? What is the root cause of their hate, disgust and angst? Why they are unhappy?”

    siguro kung pagbabasahin natin ang tanong na yan at irerelate natin sa Maslow’s hierarchy of needs nasa stage two pa lang sila nito. which is of course they still have 3 more steps to go, to feel the happiness they wanted which are the love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Security and Physiological they already had it. At sabi mo nga they wanted more, kasi nag-iisip karamihan sa kanila at wala silang “bahala na” mentality na katulad nating mga pinoy. Physiilogical pa lang bagsak na tayo no wonder ganito ang katuwan ng karamihan na mga pinoy 😀

    1. a few friends of mine from Singapore tell me that Singapore has become boring and routine. Sure they’re rich but that’s the end of it.

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