Lydia Lim, Associate Opinion Editor

Happiness is not consuming but learning to thrive

Working to do our best in something we find meaningful can be its own reward

Many Singaporeans are "under happy" at work, or so says a recently released survey.

The people behind it coined the phrase "under happy" to describe an in-between state between being happy and unhappy.

The survey on workplace happiness by the Singapore Human Resources Institute and Align Group polled 5,000 workers online and found that they chalked up an average score of 59 out of 100.

That's the psychological equivalent of a C grade, a state of well-being so middlingly mediocre it's akin to drinking lukewarm beer or eating stale keropok (crackers).

Might being under happy be worse than being unhappy, since misery might spur a person to change where mere dissatisfaction does not?

But what matters too is how happiness is measured in this survey. Those who took it were asked to respond to 28 statements on work. From their responses, workers seemed most unhappy about workplace culture, pay and benefits.

A friend with a degree in positive psychology and who is a "psychotherapist and resilience coach" distinguishes between two ideas of happiness: hedonism and eudaimonia.

The first is defined by pleasure and consumption, the second by virtue and excellence.

If the survey mainly asked people about their salary, bonuses and other material things, he says, the likely conclusion is that they would not be happy. This is due to hedonistic adaptation, a process of adjustment that results in people getting used to whatever level of material comfort they attain such that it no longer thrills them, and desiring to move up to a higher level.

Hedonism, in other words, is a source of fleeting feelings of pleasure, but it ultimately fuels dissatisfaction.

Indeed, this state of restlessness, of insatiability, of "getting bored with what we've got", is why people work so hard even when they do not enjoy their work, says Emeritus Professor of Political Economy Robert Skidelsky at Warwick University in a recent interview. And capitalism, he says, "inflames insatiability", and makes it the engine of the machine.

Eudaimonia, by contrast, is the idea of human flourishing, of how human beings thrive when they choose certain ways of living. A central concept in Aristotle's Ethics, it is about the good life as an end to strive for, not as a thing to possess or consume.

People who have internalised this sense of the good life may appear on the outside no different from others, but they are worlds apart in terms of their interior life and in their response to challenges.

A friend of mine told me about his national service buddy, a remarkable man whose job at the airport is to deal with angry passengers at the lost luggage counter. My friend asked him how he could possibly enjoy such work.

His reply: He sees it as a game, a way to challenge himself. If he manages to get the irate customer to calm down, he scores a point. If he succeeds in getting the customer to smile, he wins!

He sets his own rules, which gives him a sense of autonomy. And he charts his own progress, which gives him a sense of mastery. Every encounter becomes a chance to learn new skills and master the art of managing angry people.

Another friend surprised me when - knowing how overworked he was - I urged him to slack off on a project that his instructor might not take the time to grade. He shrugged his shoulders in response and said: "I just want to learn."

He was not put off by what his instructor might or might not do. Instead, he was energised by the prospect of learning something new.

I have not met many Singaporeans like him. Most want to know what the payoff is - in terms of grades or money - before they decide how much effort to put in.

My friend has what these others do not - his own sense of what matters and where he wants to invest his efforts.

He has what New York Times columnist David Brooks says many privileged young people raised to be "approval-seeking machines" lack: the "solid criteria that will help them make their own judgments", an inner fire that fuels action.

What has this to do with happiness?

If happiness is about virtue and excellence, then working to be the best that we can be is its own reward. Investing effort in what each of us finds personally meaningful is what enables human beings to flourish.

And such an understanding of the good life is all the more important in this era of rapid change, where technology is remaking not just jobs but entire industries.

The era of self-directing careers is upon us, career coach Paul Heng wrote in a commentary in The Straits Times last week. That means people have to get used to taking charge of their own careers, be prepared to learn, unlearn and relearn so as to stay up to date, and to do so with not just one set of skills but a diversity of them so they are versatile and can adapt to change, he says.

To do that, people need to believe in their ability to shape their own lives, and not wait around to be told what to do or for government guarantees of secure, well-paying jobs.

That may seem like a daunting prospect but if the "under happy" survey tells us anything, it is that those who eschew monetary rewards for careers they find meaningful are rewarded.

The happiest workers, as it turns out, are not the highest earners but those who work in voluntary welfare organisations.

Perhaps that is because, as Winston Churchill is reported to have said: "We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give."

lydia@sph.com.sg