The Strategic Retreat

Singapore: Miserable or Happiest?

chained door knockers at haw par villa

Before I get into the misery situation in Singapore, something I hope to do by tomorrow, I first want to address the survey that has been generating “Most miserable” headlines. Simply put, the survey doesn’t do a good job of measuring misery and shouldn’t be looked at as an accurate gauge of a country’s misery. The problem here is brand recognition. People hear “Gallup poll” and instantly give it credence. And, in some ways, that’s fair. Gallup is well known for effectively conducting surveys. What they aren’t known for is determining what makes a population happy or miserable. They have no clue as to what they’re doing in that regard. The survey results for the specific questions they ask are valid. The survey results for grandiose headlines declaring one country happy and another miserable are not even close to valid.

It’s a lot like the Most Expensive City results I disputed the other day. People gave that credit because it was from The Economist. As if “The Economist” is an entity that writes articles. In reality, it was done by Jon. Jon did the best he could with the task he was given. He was given a task that couldn’t be completed accurately, as the variables are just too great. Jon knows he didn’t determine the most expensive city in the world, but he did complete the task assigned to him. What he determined is which city had the most expensive items on the list he made. There’s validity in that list, just not for what his headline claimed.

Gallup asked 5 questions and people decided to use the results of those 5 questions to make overall statements on happiness. What Gallup actually determined was the percent of ‘yes’ answers to those 5 questions, nothing more. Relating those answers to overall happiness is poor science by Gallup and poor journalism by those that reported on it.

More recently than the Gallup poll, The United Nations conducted its own research into happiness. Their results determined Singapore to be the happiest country in Asia. How did two respected entities come up with polar results? Simple, they asked different questions. Neither group’s questions should be looked at as an accurate gauge of happiness. Below I’ll go over Gallup’s questions and why I feel they’re bad for the task at hand.

thai dragonboat girls

1. Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?

Right off the bat we can see that this survey isn’t going to give us a valid answer on happiness. Smiling and laughing are often tied to happiness, especially in Western cultures but they aren’t happiness in themselves. Both smiling and laughing vary greatly as cultural norms. In many East Asian cultures laughing and smiling can be discouraged, sometimes seen as a sign of confusion, anger or simpleness. Some cultures just don’t outwardly display emotions as often as other cultures.

This question is measuring cultural norms, as they relate to displaying emotions, more than it is measuring happiness. If you are part of a culture that laughs a lot, you’re more likely to laugh. If you live in a more reserved culture, you’re less likely to laugh. That has nothing to do with happiness. This is a bad question to determine anything other than exactly what was asked.

man sleeping on sidewalk in Portland

2. Did you feel well rested yesterday?

I hate being tired. After having undiagnosed sleep apnea of over a decade and now finally knowing what it’s like to not be sleepy, I value my rest more than anyone I know. I am super biased towards sleep being related to happiness. Yet I still don’t believe this is a good question.

Did I feel well rested yesterday? Like the rest of the survey questions, this one relates to a specific day, presumably a weekday. As if happiness is something that has to be ever present. Personally, I have my happiness in chunks. I work and I play, rarely shall the twain meet. That doesn’t mean I’m not happy, it just means I prioritize some days for work and others for play. It’s actually a way to maximize my happiness, not to lessen it. Sure, I could be better rested on work days but I choose not to because I value other items in my life above that extra hour of rest. I make that choice because what makes me happy is having the resources for adventure. I value that a smidge above my precious sleep.

If the survey were to ask, “did you enjoy your lunch yesterday?” I’m willing to bet that Singapore would be at the top of the list. But they chose sleep over food, and so Singapore is at the bottom. It’s not that sleep is unimportant but it was an arbitrary choice that could have easily been replaced with something else that would have drastically altered the overall results. It’s not that these questions are unrelated to happiness it’s that they can’t and shouldn’t be used to make on overall statement on happiness. This is especially true if we never delve into the why and the impact these choices have on the individual.

tissue uncle

3. Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?

Do you care about being treated with respect, all day? I don’t. If I’m respected by my family, friends and coworkers I don’t need respect from a crabby Summons Aunty. If I’m sufficiently paid I can forgo a bit of respect and take on a job in the service industry or lose a little face to a gruff boss. Being respected by all people at all times is not something that strongly correlates to my happiness. Maybe it does for some people, but Gallup never asked that. They never asked, with any of the 5 questions, if the subject valued the criteria or related it to happiness. They made bold assumptions and treated those assumptions as facts.

body painting singapore

4. Did you learn or do something interesting yesterday?

Again, this shows a flaw in only asking about one day. If I work at an uninteresting job all week but spend my weekends playing the ukulele, throwing pots and writing a novel does that mean I don’t do anything interesting? Does that mean somebody who spends 20 minutes a day doing something interesting is happier than me just because my creative time in compartmentalized?

Singaporeans work longer hours than just about anyone, Monday to Friday is pretty busy with work. Yet if you were to ask this question on a Sunday rather than a Friday you’d probably get much different results. Having less fun on weekdays than people in other countries doesn’t show an overall lack of fun; it shows exactly what it shows, and nothing more.

break dancing on f1 track in singapore

5. Did you experience a lot of enjoyment yesterday?

This one is not that bad. Other than it being specific to a single day and not having a follow up question on how much the survey taker values enjoyment, I think it’s the best question of the 5. Still, the entire survey would be better if they simply asked, “Are you happy?” and left it at that. It would certainly be more valid than assuming all these made up questions constitute happiness.


The UN Survey is flawed as well. 75% of its weight was based on 6 categories: Real GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, and generosity. A little crossover between the two surveys would have been nice. The Gallup poll didn’t touch on the economic realities of food and shelter and The UN survey seemed to rely too heavily upon those. Whilst I truly believe that money doesn’t buy happiness I also believe that not-money buys not-happiness. It’s hard to be happy when you’re hungry and cold but it’s easy to be miserable when your life is based around acquiring possessions.

Like the survey that named Singapore the world’s most expensive city and the one that named Portland America’s fittest the real issue is overreaching headlines based on flawed criteria. There’s no legitimate reason that these 5 questions were used over 5 others. If they were to make a new set of questions related to happiness, they’d find a new misery winner. It’s as simple as that. In order to sell ad space, surveys are being reported as legitimate scientific findings. In reality, all they are telling us are the answers to the specific questions actually asked.

All that being said, there is a lot of misery in Singapore but soft science masquerading as statistics isn’t going to show you that. We’re not at a point in time where such things can be easily quantified. Sometimes it takes boots on the ground to realize a city isn’t all that expensive if you can get chicken rice for $2. Sometimes it takes meeting a cross section of people, from different walks of life and socioeconomic backgrounds, to understand how many versions of Singapore there really are. Some Singapores are not as great as others. I’ll do my best to show the Singapore I know, as it relates to misery. But, for now; it’s Saint Patrick’s day and I’m going to pretend to be Irish for a few hours.

About Jeff Penman

Jeff was born in the back of a War Game Store on the day the first Star Trek movie came out, to a computer programmer mother and a father who wrote the story for Dragon's Lair. Jeff has an MBA and a penchant for sticking his nose here it doesn't belong.