The Pursuit of Happiness

The Pursuit of Happiness

In his third talk in the SR Nathan Series for the Institute of Policy Studies – “Can Singapore fall?” – Mr Lim Siong Guan addressed the issues of the future. An hour of this gentleman’s talk cannot be justly condensed into a few words which is why I urge you to read all three of his lectures. They are the most thoughtful and compelling I have heard in forty years in Singapore. The first lecture was worthy of being a National Day Speech for any country.

The gist of his third lecture may be summed up as “Singapore citizens have done brilliantly to reach one of the highest standards of living in the world in fifty years. That was achieved by discipline. Now they seek a more gracious society. That can only be acquired when each individual learns the importance of – and practices – the soft skills that make society cohesive and enjoyable”. My summary and, as I say, inadequate.

Mr Lim concludes his third and final lecture by touching on the issue of what makes people happy. Others have been here before. The American Constitution specifically provides for citizens having the right ‘to pursue happiness’. Today we know that happiness is a butterfly. Pursue it and you will never catch it. Sit still and it may briefly alight on your hand. As mentors and coaches we know that more than 80% of those who come to us are seeking happiness, directly or indirectly. Mr Lim’s lecture faced this question squarely.

Studying the approximately 20,000 people who have been through our programmes, we concluded some years ago that those who spend 60% or more of their lives helping others are generally happy; those who spend 40% or more of their lives pleasing only themselves are generally less happy. It is more complicated than that, of course, but the basis of our happiness has more to do with our treatment of others than with ourselves. The irony of the paradox is that those who pursue money as a route to happiness don’t find it. Those who pursue service usually find both happiness and money. Purpose directs us to the more external view.

The implications are far reaching, socially, politically and economically. But nowhere does the principle reach further than in education. Fifty or more years ago higher education was designed to enable students to appreciate life more than to get a job. Today educators say that parents and students demand that the priority is job getting. All other considerations are secondary or irrelevant. Seeking a job is a noble and worthy cause. Supporting ourselves, our families and, if we can spare it, other people is a high calling. Like any high calling it can be overdone.

‘Competition is too fierce’, I am told and I believe it. There are said to be more people than there are jobs for them although this is an oversimplification. Capitalism, which has delivered amazingly high standards of living for many is based on competition. We have been clever enough to invent equipment and processes to substitute for heavy lifting and hard thinking. Why have we not provided work for those who cannot get to do either? The answer is that we have failed to modify competition / capitalism to handle the different circumstances of today. In spite of all the brains in the world we are quite stuck in a rut.

Once the basics of life are provided, humans need purpose and appreciation to be happy. In our rush to add material wealth to our basics we are in danger of forgetting this. If we do not do so we shall have a world full of dissatisfied people struggling to achieve the unnecessary.

Truly, as Thomas Gray said in 1751 in his Elegy, “The paths of glory lead but to the grave”. A good reason for us to make the life journey as agreeable as possible.

Mainly for other people.