Has Singapore Found the Secret to Satisfaction?

Despite lack of civil liberties, citizens of this clean, safe city are happy.

SINGAPORE, Jan. 9, 2008 — -- If you set out across the globe and talk to a few of the 6.5 billion people who live here, you will be amazed by the pockets of joy you'll find in the most unlikely places. You'll find happy mothers in the dusty villages of Africa, happy Tibetans toiling under Chinese oppression and happy families in the slums of Bombay.

To understand this sort of human contentment, Dan Buettner founded a global project called Blue Zones. He found that a liberal, tolerant, democratic society helps make Denmark the happiest country in the world.

But is there a similar level of contentment in a place with one political party, a censored press and nonjury trials? Welcome to Singapore, the happiest country in Asia.

"Ninety-five percent of the people around us say they're either somewhat happy or very happy," Buettner said of Singapore. "That's a very high proportion for Asia."

Safety and Success

This high proportion of satisfied citizens wasn't the case 40 years ago, when a man named Lee Kwan Yew took power in Singapore, and laid down the law. He made the Chinese and Malaysian locals learn English, banned spitting, chewing gum and long hair, and even paid educated people to have children.

With his draconian laws he transformed Singapore from a smelly, chaotic seaport into one of the richest, cleanest, safest and most efficient big cities in the world. But woe unto those who break the rules and litter or forget to flush. "[Singapore] is based on the rules," one local said. "[With] rules and very systematic country."

There are fines for the smallest infractions, and more serious criminals are strapped to a rack and beaten with a bamboo cane.

We met one man in Singapore who has seen and felt Singaporean justice firsthand. After serving 15 years for gang-related crimes, Neville Tan is now a pastor with a prison ministry. He says he was caned many times and describes it as a "horrible, painful experience." But he doesn't mind it one bit. "We feel safe. If we don't break the law, we don't have to worry about the law."

Mark Zee is an actor who moved to Singapore from Apple Valley, Minn., and he says he had no problem giving up civil liberty in exchange for a clean, safe city. Singapore, he says, has some of the "highest paid civil servants in the world, and so you get some very smart people running the country, and that's something that, you can't say in all Western countries," said Zee. "Hint, hint."

So on a scale of one to 10 as the happiest, how do citizens rank themselves? "Probably an eight," one man said. Another responded to the question "What would make you happier?" with "more money."

Many people agree; some of the other pillars of Singapore society are built around wealth. They're known as the five C's: cash, credit cards, condominium, cars and country club.

Celina Lin, a self-made millionaire and one of the nation's best-known bachelorette socialites, can tell you all about the five C's. Despite her apartment full of art, her snazzy Porsche and 300 pairs of shoes, she was the least happy person we met.

"Sometimes I get unhappy if I compare," she said. "Of course someone … wealthier, having a more luxurious life, driving a bigger car, having a bigger house, having a wonderful husband who provides for her. And when I think of that, I feel, I mean honestly, I feel a tinge of jealousy."

Keeping up with the Joneses is an obsession in this culture.

In Singapore, kids spend their vacations participating in time management seminars. While this kind of competition is often the source of unhappiness, the drive to succeed is tempered by Confucian values — the family ALWAYS comes first.

Striking a Balance

Jennie Chua, the former CEO of the famous Raffles Hotel, says she is often happiest when having breakfast with her grandchildren, and her contentment comes knowing that they will have a secure future. Douglas Foo, one of the most successful restaurateurs in Asia, says that his goal is to create a chain as big as Starbucks or McDonalds … as soon as he's done playing with his kids.

"All of us have one thing that's limited in supply, that's time," he said. "So we should do some planning, right? How much time do you want to spend with the family, your career, or some hobby? I think there's a balance."

But can you have both? "Well, I'm not going to do that single-handedly," said Foo. "There are a lot of things I want to do in my life; I want to make sure by the time I leave, when he calls up and says 'Now is the time to go,' I will leave smiling, and saying that I lived a very fulfilling, meaningful life."

But all this talk about happiness raises a question: Where is the happiest place in America? In his new book, "The Geography of Bliss," Eric Weiner also explored the happiest spots on the globe and using the lessons learned, set out to find the happiest place in America.

He settled on Asheville, N.C. "You've got mountains, beautiful mountains all around," he explained. "You have a tremendous, thriving, artistic community. You have cafes everywhere, every other shop is a coffee shop or a bookstore."

But more importantly, he said, "You have a really strong sense of community here. And if I've learned anything from researching this book, it's that other people matter. There's no such thing as personal happiness, your happiness is part and parcel of those around you."

Community — that's the key. Community is why happiness can be found along with the high taxes in Denmark, the harsh rules in Singapore and the crushing poverty in India. One study found that the people living on the streets of Calcutta are happier that those in California. The homeless in Fresno may have more access to food and shelter, but what have the "houseless" in Bombay got? They have each other.