I was triggered by Property Soul’s latest post exploring whether property is the reason Singaporeans are not the among the happiest bunch of people in the world.
The stats do indicate we are not very happy:
- We are ranked only 34th in 2018 World Happiness Report
- In 2015 World Health Organization survey, Singaporeans have the highest depression rates in Asia
- Home ownership in Singapore rose from 58.8% in 1980 (where Kyith was born!) to 90.6% in 2016. Those in the top 25 positions in the same World Happiness Report did not have a higher home ownership percentage
Property Soul also round up some good stats on happiness:
- The Better Life Index of OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) measures life satisfaction of member countries every year. Although US households have the highest average disposable income, the country only ranks 14th in its life satisfaction rating
- China’s GDP has a five-fold increase in the last 25 years. Despite the rise in income level, China experienced a decline in happiness
Property Soul gave some good reasons about our lack of happiness:
- There is too much things to worry about (unemployed, failed business, investment loss, terminal illness, etc)
- We seen the consequences of failure in Singapore and always aspire to pull far away from suffering the same fate
- We don’t have courage or ability to make changes in our lives. Too much is at stake
- Our happiness is driven by our out-performance in our social circle. If you own a HDB flat but all your peers in your social circle owns Executive Condominium or full fledged Condominium, you will aspire to have one.
I think I generally agree with most of the points, and they paint a good picture why we cannot achieve happiness.
Property is not the root of the problem. However, since we are an Asian society, and Asian society placed an emphasis on ownership of property, it becomes an object of discussion when it comes to wealth.
If I were to sum up the best parts of her article it is that we lived in a meritocratic society. Progress in life is suppose to make us happy.
However, we do not judge progress based on our own metrics. We are not individuals, but lived in a community.
Inadvertently, we got lost that we do not measure progress by our own yardstick but by the community.
She pays attention to these aspects well, and I did observe the same struggles.
You can tell by the reaction to the Sunday Times’ Me and My Money section.
People like to read about those folks who worked hard and got somewhere. But getting somewhere needs to be realistic.
Those article that riled people up are those experience where the folks started some business, in the sales line, who owns a few properties.
More Money Generally May not Always Lead to Happiness
I worked in an environment where the stress level is low. Most of the people get their pay and it is enough for them to get by.
The work load will vary, but I have seen places where the work load is much higher.
Yet the folks have their individual struggles with the concept of happiness.
If you ask whether they are happy now, many struggle to answer that question. This is because they cannot be sure. Or they have some dissatisfaction that prevents them from telling outright that they are happy.
If you do not have stressful work, your job is not on the line, you have adequate money then why the struggle?
Property Soul has a point having more money might not lead to more happiness.
I will contend that more money expands your capacity. With that expanded capacity, you have more decisions to make.
Fearing that you make the wrong decisions creates stress. Missing out on the opportunity costs creates stress. You can have a better quality of life. Better quality of life definitely increases your satisfaction.
However, many do not feel this leads to happiness. Why?
Because of what Property Soul raised: that need to keep up.
In the end, if you live by your own terms, expanded capacity a lot of the times lead to more happiness. However, not many of us lived by our own terms but on the terms of society.
Progress increases our Happiness
What is less discuss is whether meritocracy makes us more happy.
And whether this kind of happiness is real or not.
In my interaction with other people, I do find that progress to lead to higher life satisfaction.
My best friend wishes to see progress in his career. His career, net worth and family life is not doing too badly.
When I spoke with someone who I was mentoring, you can genuinely feel that when you are at a place where you can learn, be part of something bigger than yourself and achieving some results, it positively affects you.
The problem comes when the work load becomes too overwhelming (due to poor planning, industry culture) that it creates a lot of residual negative stress.
Soon that eats up your happiness and soon you become unhappy.
The truly satisfied folks generally are the ones who can get their shit together:
- They pick up things, execute well and gain competency
- They are able to set boundaries on what they want in life and what they don’t want
The ones who struggled don’t do both well.
They set the boundaries what they want in life and what they don’t want, but they struggle at work mastery.
They don’t get remunerated or become stagnant in their career. Gone Case.
The opposite is to gain mastery at work.
However, they just cannot draw that boundary well. Soon they gain a lot of money, and jumped on that hamster wheel of trying to keep up with their social and professional circles. Gone Case.
Learning to Appreciate Things and have Gratitude
I believe most of us are infinitely better in our lifestyle compared to the kings in the past.
Only the royalties in the past can eat meat. Yet today, many of my friends detest vegetables and must have meat in their meals!
You have a roof over your head that you can hide in severe thunderstorms or hot weather.
You do not have to be a royalty to afford air conditioning.
I find that if we can step back more, take a look at our situation in the third party perspective, you might be able to appreciate how far you came from what your parents couldn’t give you and what you have gotten for yourself.
How your home was and how it is nowadays.
This is practicing gratitude.
Research by UC Davis psychologist Robert Emmons, author of Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, shows that simply keeping a gratitude journal—regularly writing brief reflections on moments for which we’re thankful—can significantly increase well-being and life satisfaction.
I honestly struggled to write a diary in the past. I still struggle to do that.
However, I do note down key points in my life throughout the year in an Evernote Notebook as my memory starts failing me time and gain.
But damn, there were some days I would be lost scrolling through what happen in the past.
It sort of re-calibrate how I look at life.
You can reduce the Anxiety through pursuing Financial Security
There is too much things to worry about (unemployed, failed business, investment loss, terminal illness, etc)
You might not be very satisfied because these things are on your mind.
What I find is that a lot of the worries in this world:
- Are fabrications of our fear on something that matters less to us
- Are genuine fear but we do not know when it will hit us, whether it will hit us and how badly it will affect us
#1 can be solved by exploring what matters to us. If you do it well and you identify things that worries you and matters less to you, then perhaps, you worry over nothing much.
To address #2 it is through insurance. There are some worries that can be mitigated by insurance bought from insurance companies.
There are some others that you need to self-insure.
Building wealth addresses this well. I wrote extensively on the topic of financial independence and how much we required. While we all aim towards financial independence, I got a feeling human beings just wishes to have adequate security in various aspect of their lives.
Our dear friend Maslow came up with a pyramid that depicts what motivates us, starting from the bottom which is most basic and most necessary.
The first 2, physiological and safety needs are more areas of deficiency. The top 3 are areas of growth. Areas of deficiency means that if you are deficient in physiological needs, you are going to fill like crap.
Maslow expects us to be resilient in the most bottom deficiency before moving on to solving the next one.
Areas of growth explains our need for progress. The greater progress we can achieve the greater the satisfaction level.
In Singapore, a lot of us are locked down on Physiological needs. Due to our low unemployment rate, how safe it is to live in Singapore, our urban healthy care, safety needs are locked down.
That gives us the bandwidth to pursue growth.
However, things are not always so rosy. The anxiety comes because Safety Needs, in this case, is not locked down.
Building up wealth and taking care of firstly, your physiological needs can ease tremendous burden.
The problem arises when you forget that you have to settle your physiological needs.
You also forget that you can rebuild from the bottom part of the pyramid again.
I would contend that for many, blindly chasing the dream of upgrading or speculating in property is OK, provided you have a plan figure out. By plan, it means how would you cash flow that speculative assets, how would you build upon it, or spend it down in retirement.
When you blindly monkey see monkey do without a sensible plan, a lot of times you are going to get into confusing, anxious situation when part of the plan comes apart.
Property is not the fall guy for the lack of happiness here in Singapore.
The fall guy is probably ourselves, who let life happen instead of making the desired life happen.
The way to correct this:
- Re-look at your own Maslow’s hierarchy
- Have enough instances where you take stock of what is happening to you and your family and practice enough gratitude.
- To enhance the effect of gratitude, pay attention to the people that didn’t have it as well, it might put some perspective to what you have
- Find a job that is suitable where you can gain in ways other than the monetary aspects
- Build wealth well and make better financial decisions