Why is Hong Kong an unhappy city? What can be done to change it?

March 24, 2016 14:39
Hongkongers might be happier if they could spend more time with their families. Photo: HKTDC

The latest World Happiness Report came out recently.

In Hong Kong, the focus was on our ranking – 75th out of 157 places, compared with 72nd the year before.

Denmark and other Scandinavian countries were at the top, while the lowest-ranking places were disaster zones such as Syria.

The highest-ranking places – which also included the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand and Australia – are no surprise.

These are the same countries that score highest in other developmental and quality-of-life surveys.

They are prosperous, stable and enjoy strong reputations for social welfare and justice.

The countries at the bottom of the list include Afghanistan and Burundi.

These places are in such a state of crisis or failure that it is almost a joke to put them in a “happiness” index.

The countries in the middle include some surprises.

Hong Kong inevitably compares itself with Singapore, which comes in at an impressive 22nd.

This is just above Britain, at 23rd. But it is behind Mexico, which comes in at 21st.

I am sure that Mexico has a lot of nice things about it, but would Singaporeans or Britons (or Hongkongers) prefer to be living there?

Further down the list, Taiwan, at 35, comes in below Colombia, at 31 (Colombia even beats France, at 32).

Japan, at 53rd, and South Korea, at 58th, rank below Algeria, El Salvador and Uzbekistan (which range from 38th to 49th).

What is happening here?

Why on earth are people in prosperous, safe and advanced countries like Japan and South Korea less happy than in Uzbekistan (with a per capita gross domestic product of US$5,600) or crime-ridden El Salvador (which newspapers call the “murder capital of the world”)?

Let’s start by assuming that we can accept the methodology of the Happiness Index survey.

It is probably not perfect, but a quick look at its website shows that it is quite professional and detailed.

The data comes from surveys asking people to rate their own happiness.

This does not simply reflect economic development compared with that in other places.

In the states at the top of the rankings, life is, broadly speaking, very good, and most people are probably aware of it.

In the broken societies at the bottom, life is so bad, people are fleeing.

But in the middle, people’s happiness is about their own expectations and even perhaps their feelings, rather than just the level of material wealth at the time.

So, people in a high-crime, middle-income country in Central America might feel happy because they have what they need, even if they cannot afford luxuries.

They have big, supportive families and local communities.

And their economies are growing, so they feel good about the future.

Meanwhile, people in a rich and peaceful place in East Asia might not feel the same way.

Japanese or Koreans – or Hongkongers – might feel under great pressure at work.

They probably have smaller family and community networks.

These mature economies, with aging populations, face slower growth.

People can probably think of dozens of reasons why Hong Kong’s rank in this index is declining.

High living costs, long work hours, stress and crowding would be just a few.

One that really stands out, I think, is the pressure our city’s lifestyle puts on the family.

It is impossible to ignore the recent series of tragic suicides among school and university students in our city.

Our intense education system is obviously a factor, and culture may also be partly to blame (South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong have much higher suicide rates than most Central American nations).

Family life – or the lack of one – must also be playing a role.

One of the saddest things about life in Hong Kong is that many families have so little time together.

A recent news report mentioned traffic problems outside a private school – parents preferred to drive their kids rather than put them on the school bus. 

One mother said that it was the only chance she had every day to talk to her child.

Improving our work-life balance is probably one of the key issues for our society in the years ahead.

This covers things like childcare, flexible working hours and many other areas, such as paternity leave.

In Hong Kong, new fathers have been eligible for three days of paid paternity leave, starting one year ago.

That was considered a major step forward. Yet we lag behind here, as in many areas.

Just as the Happiness Index results came out, Singapore announced that it would extend its one-week paternity leave, paid for by the government.

A second week will be available for new fathers, subject to the employer’s agreement.

This brings Singapore in line with Denmark.

It is one small example of how Hong Kong can change its thinking and reverse its decline in the Happiness Index.

-- Contact us at [email protected]


Executive Council member and former legislator; Hong Kong delegate to the National People’s Congress