You're happy if you think you are

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 31, 2013

Over seven years, she worked her way up from being a secretarial assistant to a senior secretarial manager. She achieved her work goal but her personal happiness rating was just five out of 10.

Ms Tan Jun Mi, 37, used to work at least 12 hours a day and did not enjoy the rigid corporate culture. In a bold move, she quit her cushy job in 2011 to set up her own company, so that she now works fewer hours and enjoys the flexibility of managing her own time.

She attends motivational seminars and reads self-help books to learn how to find happiness.

When she wakes up each morning, she consciously makes positive assertions, ranging from stating what she is grateful for, to naming the things she can look forward to that day. Before she hits the sack at night, she thinks about the people she helped that day or what she did well in.

Last year, Ms Tan began posting motivational quotes on her Facebook account each day to create positive energy for herself, she said. They get plenty of "likes". The single woman also volunteers with the Tanjong Katong Neighbourhood Committee and donates at least 10 per cent of her company's revenue to charity each month.

These are reasons why she said, without hesitation, that she has reached the 10 on the happiness scale now.

She said: "I've learnt that you must create your own happiness and not blame others if you're not happy."


Ms Tan is among a growing number who are actively learning how to be happier by attending talks and courses, and reading self-help books.

It may sound strange that she can learn to be happy, but what workshop trainers, lecturers and self-help authors do is use positive psychology - sometimes known as the scientific study of happiness - to teach people how to turn negative perceptions of events into positive attitudes and action.

And people are becoming believers. The Centre for Effective Living, a psychology-based firm offering counselling and mental-wellness training, conducted 58 workshops for 16 companies last year, compared with 18 workshops for 11 companies in 2011.

At the School of Positive Psychology, a private education centre, founder Stephen Lew said demand for diploma courses on positive psychology has risen 10 per cent year-on-year since 2007.

One of its students, independent financial adviser Sean Lim, 37, has published a self-help book. He said there is no shortage of companies which want to engage his services.

Demand is so high that two universities have started offering courses in positive psychology. Associate Professor of psychology Christie Napa Scollon at the Singapore Management University's School of Social Sciences teaches a course on subjective well-being, which debunks myths about happiness and gives her young students insights into their own lives. She said: "There is certainly no shortage of people with advice on how to be happier, but science can help people understand what works and what doesn't."

Some might say there is much to be learnt: Results of a Gallup poll released last year found Singaporeans to be the least positive and most emotionless of citizens in 148 countries.

Just last month, however, the United Nations' second World Happiness Report listed Singapore climbing three spots to become the 30th happiest country in the world. That report used a number of indicators to arrive at its conclusions, unlike the Gallup poll, which asked for people's perceptions.

Whichever way you view it, people here, like anyone else, want more to life than material goods. A survey of 4,000 people for the Our Singapore Conversation released last month found the majority would choose a more comfortable pace of life over career advancement.

It is a "natural progression of societies" to focus on subjective well-being after they have achieved material sustenance, said Dr Tambyah Siok Kuan from the National University of Singapore Business School, who started offering a new course, ThePursuit of Happiness, in January.


Happiness is both an emotion and a state of mind. A person is said to experience positive emotions when he experiences happiness, joy, excitement, calmness, pride, love and affection.

These can be brief feelings or permanent character traits.

Indeed, some people are just sunnier than others. According to Associate Professor Maureen Neihart, head of the Psychological Studies Academic Group at the National Institute of Education and author of the book Happiness Is A State Of Mine, 50per cent of people's subjective well-being come from their genetic make-ups. About 10 per cent is due to external circumstances and the remaining 40 per cent can be controlled by the individual.

The world is made up of roughly two-thirds who are born optimists and the rest pessimists, said psychiatrist Christopher Cheok.

But pessimists can practise optimism and become good at it, said the head of psychological medicine at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital who, with a colleague, published a toolkit on happiness for World Mental Health Day on Oct 1.

Dr Cheok also holds workshops teaching strategies that maximise this 40 per cent to boost one's happiness level. These aim at boosting substances in the brain, such as the "reward" chemical dopamine, which sends one into a good mood when an achievement is accomplished, and oxytocin, an "attachment" hormone released when a person is around people he is close to.

SMU's Prof Scollon said there is no "signature physiological profile" but happy people experience more positive moods than negative moods, though this does not mean they are never sad.

What is clear from research is that experiencing positive emotions yields short- and long-term health benefits. Prof Scollon said negative emotions, such as anger and fear, increase a person's heart rate and blood pressure to aid survival - the classic "fight or flight" response.

But these physiological changes are not sustainable as they wear down the body. Positive emotions help the body return to a balanced state (homeostasis) more quickly.

Experiments have shown people in a positive mood have quicker cardiovascular recovery after a stressful task than those exposed to neutral or negative mood inductions.

One study tracked the mortality of 180 Catholic nuns who had written autobiographies in early adulthood. It found the greater the number of positive words and sentences, the greater the probability of the nun being alive 60 years later.

Fortunately, the number of negative emotions reported was not conversely associated with mortality.

Another study showed that those with high levels of positive emotions were less likely to develop a cold when exposed to a virus. Dr Cheok said large-scale studies have shown optimistic people face a 48 per cent reduced risk of stroke, up to 20 per cent reduced risk of heart disease and a 7 per cent reduced risk of cancer death.

A positive mindset can permeate all aspects of life. Ms Mabel Ang, a 36-year-old secretary, used to consider buying coffee for her boss and colleagues demeaning.

She recalled: "I even told my boss he might as well engage a maid."

Things changed after she had coaching sessions with Mr Lew at the School of Positive Psychology and completed a graduate diploma there last year.

These days, she takes pride in the task, even taking the initiative to pick up snacks at the same time. She said with a chuckle: "I know I'm helping the team to be more engaged in meetings so they can bring in more sales and we can all benefit from increased bonuses."

Mr Lew also helped her identify her strengths during coaching. Knowing that she relates well to others, she has taken it upon herself to orientate newcomers to the workplace. She said: "Life becomes more meaningful when you help others."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 31, 2013

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