[SCMP Column] Why Go Glum

March 26, 2016


Far be it from me to spoil the Easter spirit, as you unwrap the foil from your easter eggs, and feast on chocolate that is rich in happiness-inducing endorphins, but Hong Kong is not a happy place, and it is getting unhappier by the year.

Over the past four years, according to the OECD’s World Happiness Report, Hong Kong has tumbled from the 46th happiest place in the world to the 75th happiest. That makes us happier than Indonesians(79th), Filipinos(82nd) and Chinese (83rd), but significantly less happy than Singaporeans (22nd), Taiwanese (35th) and Japanese (53rd).

There are of course many in gloomy Hong Kong that would retort that we don’t need the OECD to tell us what we already know, that you just need to sniff the student mood, count student suicides, and note the huge income disparities to see why we are so glum. And of course they are not wrong – but at the same time, there are so many things that make us in Hong Kong lucky, and so many things to celebrate, that the precipitous fall seems a tad harsh.

We are among the richest economies in the world. We have a comparatively uncorrupt and unintrusive government (I said comparatively). We have unemployment levels that are the envy of many. We have good hospitals and good schools by world standards. At least, by most objective measures no dramatic setbacks have occurred since 2012 that would reasonably justify such a crash in optimism. And yet we have fallen into a funk that has been fairly captured by the OECD’s surveyors.

A glimpse at the countries occupying the OECD’s commanding heights of human happiness certainly hints at some eccentricities in the rankings. Of the top 10 countries, six of them – Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Canada – are at the arctic fringes that leave them in permanent darkness for half the year, and shivering in sub-zero temperatures for just as long. I have often wondered what on earth they feel so pleased about to live in such an inhospitable part of the planet. Most of us in Hong Kong would find life in such places insufferably cold, and impossibly small-town dull.

I recall that Michael Dell of the eponymous computer manufactureronce said that the only successful company is a paranoid company. Hong Kong has perhaps been consistently successful because it is chronically paranoid – and the high levels of adrenalin and paranoia intrinsic to Hong Kong society are hardly condusive to the sort of “fat and lazy complacency” that must surely sit at the heart of a happy Finnish or Danish family.

I was fascinated recently to read that language differences can make a difference over whether we are happy or not. Research by data scientists at the University of Vermont recently trawled billions of words used in 10 languages across a wide range of sources (books, news, social media), and then identified in each language the 5000 most commonly used words. Two fascinating insights emerged:
·         first, for all the languages together, around 77% of the words are positive or connote happiness. Our language predisposes us to talk happy talk. Or our predisposition to be happy makes us use happy words more often than gloomy ones.
·         Second, the balance differed between languages: the Spanish language had the largest proportion of happy-leaning words – well above 90%. By comparison, in Putonghua, barely more than 60% of the most commonly used words were happy-leaning. Does this mean we are always going to rank poorly on rankings like those assembled by the OECD?

There are some readers who for sure think I am being a bit glib. Quite rightly, they may complain that I should not make light of such a collapse in relative happiness over the past four years. They would say that the recent jump in student suicides is no laughing matter, and that we ignore such signals at our peril. And of course they are right. The angst being registered in our community today is worrying, and potentially contagious. The sources of that angst are being well discussed, and need to be addressed by our policymakers.
But let us not ignore the very real and positive strengths of our community. As an example, let me turn to another recent fascinating piece of OECD research – on low-performing students worldwide. In a long term study of baseline levels of proficiency in mathematics, reading and science across students in 63 economies worldwide, it found that Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong (in that order) lead the world – and lead by a large margin. In Maths, for example, the survey found that in 16 economies, more than 50% of students failed to reach baseline levels of proficiency. Only four economies had more than 90% of students above the baseline – Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea. The same message was clear for reading and science.
Among key insights, the OECD researchers found that low performers later in life had poor access to better-paying and more-rewarding jobs, and suffered poorer health and had lower levels of social and political participation. By such measures, our Hong Kong students are among the best-equipped in the world to perform well in 21st century careers. They may feel bad about themselves in their pressure-cooker classrooms, but in the real working world, they will in due course discover they have better potential to succeed than most fellow students around the world.

Of particular concern to the OECD folks is innumeracy. They note that in the 21st century “every job will be digital”, and that the consequences of failing in maths will be crippling as kids compete for the jobs of the future. And here, we are talking not about traditional maths, but the ability to work with percentages, fractions, probability and statistics – essentially, to solve problems. Here, Hong Kong students appear to do extremely well, however gloomy we all currently feel.

Perhaps from time to time we need to draw on the advice of Monty Python: “Always look on the bright side of life.” Maybe not always, but certainly more than we do at the moment.
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