Are we becoming unhappy in the pursuit of happiness?


Over the past 50 years, Singapore has made tremendous economic progress. But our overall happiness levels haven’t progressed at the same rate, even though there have been recent improvements.

(Of course, we could have a long debate about how accurate these happiness studies are, given that happiness is difficult to both define and measure.)

I’ve had the privilege of speaking to and working with close to 15,000 people on topics related to happiness and success. Through these interactions, it’s become clear to me that people pursue happiness with a passion, but that the majority haven’t found the fulfillment they’re looking for. This is despite the fact that they’ve achieved many of their goals and have made progress in different areas of their lives.

Based on my own life experiences, I can say for certain that realising your goals, on its own, doesn’t lead to enduring happiness.

Goals are useful, but we need to be clear about why we’re setting them in the first place.

I’m sure you have all sorts of goals, as do I.

What job title you want to have.

How much money you want to make.

What car you want to drive.

What kind of vacations you want to go on.

Maybe even what you want your family life to be like.

But have you ever paused to think about why we like setting goals so much?

“If you’re not happy now, you won’t be happy because of money”

Goals give us hope, something to look forward to. And when we achieve our goals we feel good about ourselves, which increases our self-esteem.

In addition, if we know where we want to go in the long term, then goals serve as markers to guide us to that final destination.

At the heart of it, we believe that by realising our goals, we’ll be happy.

But this article, written by someone who made $15 million before he was 30 years old, highlights the fact that this belief is flawed, especially when our goals are focused on material wealth.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Most people hold the illusion that if only they had more money, their life would be better and they would be happier. Then they get rich, and that doesn’t happen, and it can throw them into a serious life crisis.

If you’re part of the middle class, you have just as many opportunities to do with your life what you want of it. If you’re not happy now, you won’t be happy because of money.

Whether you’re rich or not, make your life what you want it to be, and don’t use money as an excuse. Go out there, get involved, be active, pursue your passion, and make a difference.” (emphasis mine)

How to achieve meaningful goals, not just more goals

Your attitude and choices determine your happiness much more than your wealth—or number of goals accomplished—does.

Goals are a means of attempting bigger things, so that you can become a bigger person who’s able to serve others more effectively.

We need to focus on achieving meaningful goals, not just on achieving more goals.  This is a challenging task, because we live in a culture of “more”:

  • More money
  • More time
  • More benefits
  • More food
  • More holidays
  • More houses
  • More education
  • More Facebook friends
  • More Twitter followers
  • More projects
  • More profit

But we need to realise that more isn’t always better; sometimes less is better.

It’s better to have one good pair of shoes than it is to have 20 pairs of poorly made shoes that give you blisters every time you wear them.

In the same way, it’s better to lead a simple life with less “stuff” than it is to become overwhelmed by trying to do more, achieve more and accumulate more.

Are you reacting to the urgent or investing in the important?

If we’re obsessed with “more”, we’ll end up reacting to the urgent, instead of investing in the important.

For example, what if your boss asks you to work late to finish writing a report, but that would mean that you’d miss your monthly family dinner?

Most of us, myself included, would find it hard to say no to the boss.

Her request seems so urgent, and—if you were to say no—you might get a less satisfactory year-end appraisal.

At the same time, you know that your family will forgive you for missing the dinner. You could convince yourself that it’s not a big deal. After all, you’ll be there at next month’s family dinner.

You don’t “have” to do anything

In these kinds of situations, it can often feel as if we have no choice but to give in to the boss’ demands.

But we need to remind ourselves that we do have a choice, even if it doesn’t seem like it. There are no perfect solutions. There are only choices and trade-offs.

No matter what dilemma we’re faced with, we have the power to choose.

We don’t have to go along with the crowd.

We don’t have to choose the urgent over the important.

We don’t have to choose the easy option, if it isn’t the better one.

We don’t have to get sucked into the culture of “more”.

It might not feel this way, especially if your friends are working around the clock in an attempt to “get ahead”. And they’re constantly talking about buying a bigger home. And they’re obsessed about enrolling their children in the most exclusive schools and tuition centres.

But you can make simple choices like…

  • Stop hanging out with people who are a negative influence on you
  • Reading books that inspire and empower you
  • Thinking positive thoughts and speaking positive words
  • Deciding what values and principles you want to live by
  • Defining success for yourself, instead of allowing others to define it for you

Think different, act different, be different

At the end of the day, it’s about choosing to lead a great life, not just a mediocre or good one.

I’m not referring to greatness in terms of material wealth, although it could include that. I’m talking about leading a life of great service, great contribution, great attitude, great commitment, great kindness, and great depth of relationships.

I know I still have a long way to go in building a great life, but it’s a journey we’re on together.

The meaningful pursuit of happiness isn’t about chasing after a positive feeling or a temporary high. It’s about making the daily choice to think different, act different and be different from the crowd.

Let’s choose carefully, so that we won’t become unhappy in the pursuit of happiness.


Happiness Index Versus Economic Growth

It has always been the Singapore government advocate to equate the people’s level of wellness and happiness to the economic growth of the nation. However, do material comforts really mean happiness to all? I beg to differ.

Over the years, the people in Singapore have been told that the only passport to a better life and better future is to work hard and increase the productivity of our workforce. This proposition is portrayed  as the only way that we can do to contribute to the economic growth of the country and in so doing, all of us can enjoy a better living standard for ourselves and our future generations.

Having supported this proposition for almost three decades myself, I must say that the opportunity costs and the personal sacrifices that come with it are also high. When most of us worked ourselves crazy to meet the high expectations of our leaders, we lose a lot of the precious intangibles which are crucial factors in the assessment of the quality of our lives such as spending time with our families and loved ones, following our aspirations, art appreciation and achieving a personal state of happiness!

As the saying goes, “money cannot buy happiness” and “happiness certainly cannot be measured in dollars and cents”. Moreover, it is common sense to most of us that the wealth attained and accumulated by our high economic growth are the fruits of our collective labour and hence ought to be shared proportionately with all the citizens of the country. Sad to say, the current disproportionate income distribution and widening income gap in our society only add on to the agony and unhappiness currently experienced by the lower and middle-income groups. These people work very hard to boost the economy but are placed at the lower income percentile, causing them to work all their life just to maintain a basic life style with little savings and little time to enjoy life’s light moments. Naturally, the feeling of happiness hardly enter their minds or felt in their lives.

Hence, the idea of using the economic growth of the country to grade its success is definitely not an accurate or sound one. Conversely, using the “Happiness Index” of the people could be a more equitable one as a country is made up of its people!

The ideal would be to work hard enough to achieve the desired growth for the economy, leaving sufficient time for people to enjoy life and pursue life’s little luxuries, both social and emotional and appreciate ‘happiness’ in the real sense of the word.



Happiness makes people more productive

Happy and Productive

Happiness makes people more productive at work, according to the latest research from the University of Warwick.

Economists carried out a number of experiments to test the idea that happy employees work harder. In the laboratory, they found happiness made people around 12% more productive. Professor Andrew Oswald, Dr Eugenio Proto and Dr Daniel Sgroi from the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick led the research.

This is the first causal evidence using randomized trials and piece-rate working. The study, to be published in the Journal of Labor Economics, included four different experiments with more than 700 participants.

During the experiments a number of the participants were either shown a comedy movie clip or treated to free chocolate, drinks and fruit. Others were questioned about recent family tragedies, such as bereavements, to assess whether lower levels of happiness were later associated with lower levels of productivity.

Professor Oswald said: “Companies like Google have invested more in employee support and employee satisfaction has risen as a result. For Google, it rose by 37%, they know what they are talking about. Under scientifically controlled conditions, making workers happier really pays off.”

Dr Sgroi added: “The driving force seems to be that happier workers use the time they have more effectively, increasing the pace at which they can work without sacrificing quality.”

Dr Proto said the research had implications for employers and promotion policies. He said: “We have shown that happier subjects are more productive, the same pattern appears in four different experiments. This research will provide some guidance for management in all kinds of organizations, they should strive to make their workplaces emotionally healthy for their workforce.”

Think yourself happy! Is becoming happier as easy as trying to become happier? The latest research by two US academics suggests it might be.

In the first study, two sets of participants listened to ‘happy’ music. Those who actively tried to feel happier reported the highest level of positive mood afterwards. In the second study, participants listened to a range of ‘positive’ music over a two-week period; those who were instructed to focus on improving their happiness experienced a greater increase in happiness than those who were told just to focus on the music.

What seems to have made one group so much happier than the other in their respective studies was a combination of actively trying to become happier and using the right methods – in this case, listening to happy music.

Ferguson and Sheldon’s important findings challenge earlier studies suggesting that actually trying to become happier was, in fact, counterproductive. “The results suggest that without trying, individuals may not experience higher positive changes in their well-being,” stated the report. “Thus, practitioners and individuals interested in happiness interventions might consider the motivational mindset as an important facet of improving well-being.” And that’s definitely something worth thinking about.

Money and Happiness

Can happiness be measured in dollars and cents? Do the rich necessarily be happier than the poor? It all boils down to how individuals define happiness in their own context.

To stay alive, some basics of survival is necessary. Hence, while we cannot survive without money, money cannot buy abstract things like love, satisfaction and happiness. I like the article, “Can Money Buy Happiness” that Mr Eric Barker wrote on his blog, Barking Up The Wrong Tree in which he introduced a new book Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, that details the research on the 5 best ways to turn your dollars into lasting smiles written by  Harvard professor Michael Norton and co-author Elizabeth Dunn.

Critics have been debating this ever-controversial topic: Can money buy happiness? If so, how should happiness be priced? If not, how then is wealth or the possession of lots of money associated with the level of happiness a person can get?


 A scientific research done by Swedish psychologists have found that true happiness lies in rewarding relationships and not material wealth. The study shows that a close circle of friends and family is the most important factor for happiness while material possessions including iPhones, computers, being wealthy and owning a sports car do not provide the same level of contentment. Hence, the study concluded that our collective picture of what makes us happy is more about relationships and less about possessions.


 However, one cannot help thinking what’s the link between how much money people have and how happy they are? An analyst on this topic revealed that contrary to what most people might have imagined, there was no relationship between absolute income and well-being. Richer countries, in other words, did not necessarily have citizens who had a higher level of subjective well-being. Although we could not deny that within a given country, the expected relationship between income level and well-being did arise: richer people were happier than poorer people. We could only conclude that relative income is crucial for the well-being of citizens living in the same country but might not have any bearing on the level of happiness they experienced.

To this point, there is no doubt that money can’t make you happy, but sometimes money is a good source of momentum happiness. As such, money sometimes can buy you happiness.

Most people have really bad approach to money. It’s just paper, albeit very needy paper! However, money is paper for survival, not a thing to die for. We have to find what makes us happy and persist in it; money will come anyway, even if the thing that makes us happy is selling colourful balloons.

Without money we are savages. We will have to go in the jungle and hunt for food, just like the old times. What this world is making us do is forcing us to work, to make money, to pay bills, to have home, and to have food for us and for our family. Without the three basic needs–food, water, and shelter–we are unable to survive as human beings.

Without hydration, a safe place, and a full stomach there will never be happiness, and that’s why money can buy us happiness.

1. Food and water

Breaking down to the smallest things that are inevitable for survival, we jump to the sources of vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats, water, and carbohydrates.

We have lot of choices of how to digest the basic nutrients our bodies need. More paper (cash) is going to give you the freedom to buy healthier products. We have junk food ($10-25 per day) and the healthy meals ($35-65 per day) depending on the costs of the products per country.

The body functions properly and more energetically when we inject healthy products, but those healthy products cost more. By the fact that we are energetic and we have the proper satisfaction of the basic nutrients, we are instantly happier.

Since I personally started to spend more money on food and invest in my health, I am a new and happier man. The body needs more care because we have so many things to get sick from. Our bodies cannot fight against bacteria unless we invest in the battle. Money can buy healthy food and water, which brings happiness.

2. Luxury

Some people’s luxury is being able to rest for a day, and some people’s luxury is having one day to go hiking and inhaling the clean air, but people who enjoy living “the good life” will need an excessive number of the expensive paper.

In fact, if you enjoy in the luxury that money can buy, you will never get enough of it. Luxury has so many ways to satisfy a person, that if one enjoys in luxury, one won’t be able to experience all of it. It’s like an endless fight for satisfaction. But to be able to have that satisfaction, we must have excessive abundance of money, which is hard to come by these days.

Money can buy you happiness if you’re the type that gets satisfied from the material things such as yachts, big houses/apartments, golf clubs, Bentleys and Rolls Royce, Hublots, Champagnes (Dom Perignon), caviar and Grey Goose…the list can go for ages.

3. The choice

I’ve came to a conclusion that money being able to buy happiness is a matter of choice. Some people believe that everything comes from money (love, power, respect, freedom of choice, fun). Others believe that money is a thing for survival and nothing more. The happiness that they strive for comes from the things that can’t be bought with money (love, the small things, the authentic friends, someone to rely on).

It’s a choice that we have to make, whether we go for the money and get all the satisfaction for the things that can be bought from money, or believe that happiness is a choice, and that choice has nothing to do with money.

There is a quote from Albert Einstein that impacts my thoughts on this subject: “If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things.” But as I said, everyone is different and the choice you have to make is yours.

Linking Success to Happiness

Is success and happiness inter-related? Well, that depends on how a person choose to define success and happiness. Besides, we also need to identify which is the “cause” and which is the effect “effect”. That is, does success lead to happiness or happiness lead to success?

For many years, critics have advocated that success, whether in school, work or relationships, causes happiness. Many of us strive for success, putting long hours into our work or studies in the hopes of achieving success and, as a by product of that success, happiness.

However, a study done a psychologist lately found that happiness doesn’t necessarily follow success. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Happiness leads to success. According to the study’s findings, happy people seek out and undertake new goals that reinforce their happiness and other positive emotions.

These psychological studies had examined questions such as “Are happy people more successful than unhappy people? Does happiness precede success? And does positive effects lead to success-oriented behaviours?” The results from all three types of studies suggest that happiness leads to greater successes in life.”

The leading psychologist suggested that this might be because happy people frequently experience positive moods and these positive moods prompted them to be more likely to work actively towards new goals and build new resources. When people feel happy, they tend to feel confident, optimistic, and energetic and others find them likeable and sociable.”

This doesn’t mean that happy people are always successful and never feel sad.  Part of a healthy sense of well-being includes experiencing painful emotions in response to difficult and painful life circumstances.  These studies found that even generally happy people experienced negative emotions related to challenging or painful life experiences. Other factors also contribute to success, including intelligence, fitness, social support and expertise.

But, the general conclusion of the study showed that happy individuals are more likely than their less happy peers to have fulfilling marriages and relationships, high incomes, superior work performance, community involvement, robust health and even a long life.

In my opinion, I felt that one can become a happier person by adopting the following strategies:

Be grateful.

Be optimistic.

Count your blessings.

Use your strengths.

Act kindly.

How can we measure happiness

Happiness is an abstract entity. It cannot be seen, heard, smelt or touched, it however can only be felt by the heart and appreciate by the mind. Over the years, many people have attempted to measure this complex entity known as happiness and different people have their own set of measuring criteria.

To me, happiness is a perceived item. In other words, whether you are happy or not is all dependent on your own perception. If you think or perceive that you have achieved the state of happiness, you probably have if you manage to feel happy at heart and your mind can put you in a state of tranquillity, rising your spirits to match the ‘top of the world’!

Can happiness be measured in terms of the physical, mental, spiritual, intellectual or economical state of an individual? Is it transferrable or spreadable from one person to another? If achieved, what then is the objective or advantages of attaining the happiness state? Should happiness be made the goal of our life or even the basis of staying alive?

If we pose the above questions to ten persons, we probably will get ten different answers since it all depends on the perceptions of individuals. Then, is it fair for us to pass our judgements on other people’s opinion or perception of happiness? I personally think not.

I know of some people who use their economic state or their ability to make money to measure happiness. The more money they make, the happier they are. However, their riches may not include any spiritual or mental factors other than material pursuits just like the book “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” portrays. Hence, these people have perceived the ability to earn big bucks and enjoy life comfortably as happiness.

For others, the ability to give more to the community and society at large can bring happiness to them in addition to their own well-being. These people probably do not earn a lot of money but they have a lot of love to share with others. The sharing and the appreciation of others bring happiness to them.

In short, there is no one measuring standard for happiness. Happiness is in the hearts and minds of each and every individual and it is up to him or her to pursue and achieve it.

To me, happiness is the state at which the mind and body needs are both met and satisfied up to the comfort level felt by the heart. In other words, the body parts are working blissfully, the mind is churning out beautiful scenarios of life, the eyes see kind acts of mankind playing all the time, the ears hear calm and soothing ‘music’ of life and the heart is always beaming with love. Such is an ideal state of happiness I wish to pursue but have yet to achieve!

Raising Smart Learners Through Rich Conversations


When it comes to children’s learning, are we focusing too much on schools and not enough on parents?

“There is, quite rightly, a cacophonous debate on how to reform schools, open up colleges, and widen access to pre-K learning,” notes a new article, “Parenting, Politics, and Social Mobility. “However, too little attention is paid to another divide affecting social mobility — the parenting gap.”

Given all the rolling debates about how children should be taught, it may come as a surprise to learn that students spend less than 15% of their time in school. While there’s no doubt that school is important, a clutch of recent studies reminds us that parents are even more so. 

A study by researchers at North Carolina State University, Brigham Young University and the University of California-Irvine, for example, finds that parental involvement — checking homework, attending school meetings and events, discussing school activities at home — has a more powerful influence on students’ academic performance than anything about the school the students attend.

Another study, published in the Review of Economics and Statistics, reports that the effort put forth by parents (reading stories aloud, meeting with teachers) has a bigger impact on their children’s educational achievement than the effort expended by either teachers or the students themselves.

A third study concludes that schools would have to increase their spending by more than $1,000 per pupil in order to achieve the same results that are gained with parental involvement (not likely in this stretched economic era).

So parents matter — a point made clear by decades of research showing that a major part of the academic advantage held by children from affluent families comes from the “concerted cultivation of children” as compared to the more laissez-faire style of parenting common in working-class families.

But this research also reveals something else: that parents, of all backgrounds, don’t need to buy expensive educational toys or digital devices for their kids in order to give them an edge. They don’t need to chauffeur their offspring to enrichment classes or test-prep courses. What they need to do with their children is much simpler: Talk.

But not just any talk. Although well-known research by psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley has shown that professional parents talk more to their children than less-affluent parents — a lot more, resulting in a 30 million “word gap” by the time children reach age three — more recent research is refining our sense of exactly what kinds of talk at home foster children’s success at school.

For example, a study conducted by researchers at the UCLA School of Public Health and published in the journal Pediatrics found that two-way adult-child conversations were six times as potent in promoting language development as interludes in which the adult did all the talking.

Engaging in this reciprocal back-and-forth gives children a chance to try out language for themselves, and also gives them the sense that their thoughts and opinions matter. As they grow older, this feeling helps middle- and upper-class kids develop into assertive advocates for their own interests, while working-class students tend to avoid asking for help or arguing their own case with teachers, according to research presented at American Sociological Association conference last year.

The content of parents’ conversations with kids matters, too. Children who hear talk about counting and numbers at home start school with much more extensive mathematical knowledge, report researchers from the University of Chicago—knowledge that predicts future achievement in the subject. Psychologist Susan Levine, who led the study on number words, has also found that the amount of talk young children hear about the spatial properties of the physical world—how big or small or round or sharp objects are — predicts kids’ problem-solving abilities as they prepare to enter kindergarten.

While the conversations parents have with their children change as kids grow older, the effect of these exchanges on academic achievement remains strong. And again, the way mothers and fathers talk to their middle-school students makes a difference. Research by Nancy Hill, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, finds that parents play an important role in what Hill calls “academic socialization” — setting expectations and making connections between current behavior and future goals (going to college, getting a good job).

Engaging in these sorts of conversations, Hill reports, has a greater impact on educational accomplishment than volunteering at a child’s school or going to PTA meetings, or even taking children to libraries and museums. When it comes to fostering students’ success, it seems, it’s not so much what parents do as what they say.