Politicians and public figures from a range of backgrounds take turns to have their say on important matters of the day in this personal view programme.
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Dear Fellow Hongkongers:
Former University of Hong Kong President Professor Wang Gungwu and his wife recently published a memoir, whose Chinese title literally means: “Home is when you find peace in your mind: Memoirs of Wang Gungwu.” Indeed, if your mind is in peace, you feel at home anywhere. If your mind is not in peace, anywhere you go, you will still not feel at home.
I began to study happiness seriously since 2006, when I organized a conference on happiness at Lingnan University and reported results of my first happiness survey on Hong Kong people. I had continued to conduct a yearly happiness survey on Hong Kong people since then. I was curious to find Hong Kong people’s happiness so resilient after the 2008 Global Financial Tsunami. Then I realized that one’s mindset matters to happiness at least as much as circumstances. There is now considerable evidence supporting the thesis that mindset matters to happiness, and that mindset can be trained. Thus, one can choose to be happy if one is given the chance.
Alas, not everyone has the chance. Consider the case of the unfortunate five-year old girl who was brutally abused and died a premature death. The father and the stepmother were convicted of murder. The mother of the stepmother could have intervened, but she did not. The kindergarten that had observed wounds on the child could have intervened, but it did not. The poor girl was defenseless, and had to accept the fate that had befallen her. She could not choose to be happy. The father and the stepmother could have chosen to be happy, but instead, they chose to brutalize the girl and her brother, and earned a life sentence.
The puzzle is why some people choose to live an unhappy life. One may say that they know no better. One may also blame it on genes. A recent study published in Nature, involving over 190 researchers in 140 research centers in 17 countries, has identified genetic variants associated with happiness and other traits.
However, we also know that genes do not have the final word on our happiness. I have seen people succeed in transforming themselves. Sometimes some transformative events take place. People change the way they look at life. They then live a totally different life. They become happy.
One study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies found strong evidence suggesting that volunteering enhances people’s happiness. Even after controlling for the initial levels of well-being before the subjects began volunteering, those who volunteer more turned out to become happier than those who volunteer less.
My own research shows that much unhappiness has to do with excessive preoccupation with oneself. Choosing happiness must therefore involve learning to give up such preoccupation with oneself. Aggrandizement, arrogance, jealousy, hate, prejudice, all will end up making one unhappy, and they all start from a strong ego. As one sheds the sense of ego, one will gradually find peace. A strong sense of the ego makes one feel insecure. Peace will then evade them. One reason why volunteering makes one happy is that volunteers gradually learn to shed the sense of ego and to connect to others.
In 2008 the UK Government Office for Science published a report called Mental Capital and Wellbeing. It came up with ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’, namely: 1. Connect; 2. Be active; 3. Take notice; 4. Keep learning; and 5. Give. These are good suggestions, and they all involve making less distinction between oneself and others. This is not easy, because for many of us, we have acquired a habit of being self-preoccupied, to the extent that we would defend our beliefs and attack other people’s beliefs, respond vehemently to criticisms, feel good when getting a lot of “likes” and upset when people pour insults on us. A strong ego makes us excessively sensitive to real or imagined criticisms, and could turn us into a bully. Sadly, these days more and more young people are addicted to social media. Prof. Johan Bollen of Indiana University says there is a “growing body of evidence that social media may be harmful to users who 'overindulge' in these services since it's nearly impossible to escape negative comparisons to their friends' popularity and happiness."
Even among Scandinavian countries, which are generally rated among the happiest in the world, a 2018 report from the Nordic Council of Ministers and the Happiness Research Institute pointed out that among young people mental health is falling short. “In Denmark, 18.3% of people aged 16 to 24 said they suffered from poor mental health - with the number rising to 23.8% for women in that age bracket”; “Norway saw a 40% increase of young people seeking help for mental health difficulties” over the five-year-period between 2012-2016.
A recent study by the Boys and Girls Clubs Association found Hong Kong children’s happiness having fallen to the lowest level in five years. The 2020 Good Childhood Report from the UK also noted that average happiness with life among 10 to 15 year olds in the UK continues to decline and that 15 year olds in the UK are among the saddest and least satisfied with their lives in Europe. This suggests that migrating to the UK is unlikely to make our children happier. What we need to do is nurture a mind that can be at ease with ourselves. Nurturing our own mental capital, more than anything else, should be a priority, for ourselves and for our children.
Ho Lok Sang
Prof. Lok Sang Ho
Senior Research Fellow
Pan Sutong Shanghai-HK Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University
Author of: Public Policy and the Public Interest; Psychology and Economics of Happiness;
Health Policy and the Public Interest; Human Spirituality and Happiness