What is important to our well-being?
This question was raised in a recent symposium on well-being organised by the School of Arts and Social Sciences, SIM University.
Research suggests that what influences happiness differs for different facets of well-being. When it comes to a more cognitive assessment of well-being, such as one's satisfaction with life, material factors matter more.
When it comes to affective well-being, to do with one's feelings about life, fulfilment of psychological needs - such as having control over one's life, being respected and having family and friends to rely on - are more important.
A recent study published in the Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology used data from the Gallup World Poll of more than 830,000 respondents from 158 countries. It found that financial satisfaction and income were the strongest predictors of life evaluation, or cognitive well-being.
Feeling respected was the strongest predictor of positive feelings, or affective well-being.
The research shows that respect is important to feelings of happiness across the world, from the most affluent to the most impoverished nations.
Whether or not a person feels respected is a universal predictor of affective well-being, regardless of wealth.
The need to be respected stems from innate psychological needs that are essential for well-being, social functioning and psychological growth.
Respect, autonomy and social support are fundamental psychological needs. Being respected is conducive to feelings of competence, an innate psychological need. The need for respect can thus be said to be a basic human need.
Similarly, the importance of social support derives from the innate need for relatedness, that is, the desire to love and care, and to be loved and cared for by others.
Autonomy refers to the extent that people can self-direct their behaviour and experiences, such that their behaviours are concordant with their integrated sense of self.
Satisfying these three innate needs promotes growth and positive functioning and leads to enhanced well-being. Contrary to popular belief, these needs are not post-material: that is, they do not become important to people only after a society has met financial and material needs, but are salient for societies at any stage of economic development.
The Gallup study cited earlier found that the importance of respect to well-being is universal, and also more important in wealthier societies.
The fundamental psychological needs (respect, autonomy and social support) have stronger effects on well-being in richer nations than in poorer ones. In nations with higher gross domestic product, these psychological needs play a bigger role in determining people's affective well-being.
Why do psychological needs affect well-being more strongly in affluent societies?
This might be due to what experts call the cultural norm hypothesis. When an attribute is validated by a society as one that is desirable for happiness, having that attribute makes people happier, in a positive self-reinforcing cycle.
In wealthier nations, more people feel respected, have autonomy and social support. When people follow rules and lead orderly lives, they expect to meet these needs, and enjoy having them met - because society expects it of them.
What are the implications for social policies in the light of research findings showing that meeting psychological needs are vital to affective well-being, especially in affluent nations like Singapore?
Overall, the findings suggest that economically developed societies need to strike a balance and focus not only on sustaining economic growth but also on fostering values that facilitate people meeting their psychological needs. This requires nurturing societal conditions that promote respect, autonomy and social support.
Singapore is at a juncture in its development when it is trying hard to strike a new balance between creating growth and fostering values that meet people's needs. At risk of simplification, one might say it needs to balance between meeting head needs and heart needs. Initiatives in Singapore, such as "Families for Life", demonstrate that the Government recognises the role that social support plays in people's well-being, and is actively encouraging its citizens to focus on these non-material aspects.
Similarly, the continued emphasis on the importance of respecting the different practices, beliefs and values of the different ethnicities in Singapore's multicultural society suggests that the Government recognises the crucial role of respect in social harmony and well-being.
More recently, through the "Our Singapore Conversation" exercise, the Singapore Government has taken on the role of facilitator and enabler of its citizens' well-being, creating a greater sense of autonomy and feelings of being respected in the people.
More social support is evident in the strengthening of social safety nets, and in the recognition of the contributions of older Singaporeans. The Pioneer Generation Package does not just cover health-care benefits - it is a tangible sign of the respect the Government recognises should be accorded to the generation who helped build Singapore. In this year's National Day Rally, there was a similar emphasis on fulfilling psychological needs, when the Prime Minister emphasised opportunities for Singaporeans to deepen their skills in vocational and technical training, apart from academic training.
It is important to make available more education pathways for Singaporeans over the life course. This is not just about creating jobs or amassing skills. More centrally to one's core, education and lifelong learning help satisfy innate psychological needs for competence and respect.
In the end, government cannot just be about economic growth, but must also improve citizens' sense of psychological well-being. This requires governments to focus on meeting material needs as well as psychological ones.
Dr Ng Wei Ting is senior lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences (psychology programme) and Dr Kang Soon-Hock is head of the Social Science Core, both at SIM University