Why well-being literacy is central to building a happy society

Why well-being literacy is central to building a happy society

By SMU City Perspectives team

Published 22 August, 2023


Teaching happiness would specifically focus on the everyday factors that influence a person’s own well-being. There are so many decisions we make every day–what to do, who to spend time with, and how much time to spend doing x-y-z. The science of well-being focuses a lot on this aspect of mental health.

William Tov

Associate Professor of Psychology, Singapore Management University

In brief

  1. The science of well-being studies the different ways of experiencing and evaluating a positive life. This knowledge is essential in helping individuals and government leaders build happier societies. 
  2. By understanding the science of well-being, individuals can make better choices in their daily lives and develop healthier perspectives. Educational institutes play an important role in sharing this knowledge. 
  3. There is no gold standard for measuring happiness. Policymakers should monitor multiple well-being indicators and design policies that give individuals a sense of autonomy and community. 

This article is being featured in Special Feature: From Living to Thriving

No society can function by ignoring the well-being of its citizens.  According to William Tov, Associate Professor of Psychology,  the downfall of a society often starts with a massively unhappy population, suggesting that citizen well-being is a critical component of a successful society.  He shares, “There is evidence that happy people are healthier, more helpful to others, and perform better in the workplace. Therefore, understanding how to enhance well-being may be essential for helping societies flourish and prosper”.   

This was seen in a recent study by Duke-NUS Medical School and the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), which revealed that anxiety and depression symptoms may cost Singapore almost $16 billion annually, roughly 2.9% of the GDP, due to reduced productivity and increased healthcare usage.

He explains that while governments and policy-makers should actively monitor and implement policies for fostering a ‘happy society’, everyday citizens must also be familiar with the ‘science of well-being’ if any significant improvement is to occur. Based on his research and work with Singapore’s Centre for Research on Successful Ageing (ROSA), he shares how improvements can be achieved.

Q1: Your research looks at the ‘science of well-being’. What does this entail and how does well-being differ from happiness?

Assoc Prof Tov: The science of well-being studies all the different ways that people can experience and evaluate their lives positively, and what individuals and societies can do to make this happen. Feeling happy is one of these ways–and probably what most people think of when they think about well-being. But there are many other ways, including life satisfaction, meaning and purpose, experiencing flow, and even the feeling of relief that arises from avoiding unpleasant experiences. The science of well-being is concerned with all of these and has shown that they are not all exactly the same.

Well-being researchers often use the term ‘happiness’ when communicating with the public because people are more familiar with it. But when researchers try to measure well-being, they are forced to be more specific because happiness can mean so many things to so many people. There is the happiness you feel in the moment when you are watching funny videos, and there is the happiness you feel about your life in general. Then there are the things that we do because they are important to us and to others, that are not exactly fun but still meaningful: like changing diapers or being there for someone going through a tough time. 

Most people would say these kinds of experiences don’t bring the joyful feelings we usually associate with happiness, but they still contribute to their well-being by giving them a sense of meaning and purpose. So well-being is much broader than what we usually associate with the term ‘happiness’. 

Q2: Are ASEAN countries giving their citizens’ well-being sufficient attention? What is an example of progress being made in this regard?

Assoc Prof Tov: The COVID-19 pandemic drew more attention to the importance of mental health in the ASEAN region in general. This has led to calls to strengthen support for mental health services and more cooperation across the region on sharing information and best practices. So far the discussion has focused on providing support to those who are living with mental illness – and rightfully so. However, promoting well-being (a United Nations Sustainable Development Goal) requires more than preventing or mitigating depression, anxiety, and other psychological symptoms. It also entails providing opportunities for people to live happy and fulfilling lives–moving past a focus on ill-being to positive well-being.

Singapore’s Health Promotion Board has developed an index called the Singapore Mental Well-Being Scale that has been included in the annual National Population Health Survey. It measures culturally important aspects of well-being such as social connectedness and resilience. This was a great development and shows that there is growing awareness of the importance of measuring and monitoring well-being in Singapore.

This scale focuses on how people feel about their life in general. However, because well-being can change in response to the things going on in our lives, it is also important to measure well-being in the short term. For example, at the Centre for Research on Successful Ageing (ROSA), we measure older adults’ well-being on a monthly basis. This allows us to understand how ongoing policies and events are impacting the lives of older Singaporeans.

Q3: What are some misconceptions people have about the study of happiness?

Assoc Prof Tov: One misconception is that happiness is pointless to study because “happiness is fleeting” - it is going up and down all the time. If that is the case, then how could we use it as a basis for evaluating policy? Or why should we even use it as a basis for evaluating our own lives? But the science shows that there are stable differences in well-being. Some people consistently experience high levels of well-being and others consistently experience low levels. You could say that it is all genetics–and indeed, there are some genetic effects on happiness. But there are also large societal differences in well-being. People living in stable countries like Iceland are more satisfied with their lives than people living in less stable countries like Iraq or Syria. In some cases the differences are huge. People who become widowed, lose their jobs or suffer a severe injury often report levels of well-being that are lower than they were before the event. This tells us that people are generally reflecting on their circumstances when they report their well-being and that they are not making up their own feelings on a whim.

Q4: How can policymakers measure happiness effectively and turn these insights into actionable steps for fostering a ‘happy society’?

Assoc Prof Tov: By understanding that there is no gold standard measure and that we have to measure multiple aspects of well-being (or happiness broadly defined). This includes how people feel about their life in general, how they feel about specific areas of their life (e.g., work, family, health), and how they have been feeling recently (happy, sad, depressed, grateful, etc.). 

One way we can make sure that the measures are accurate is by consistently monitoring people’s well-being over time and verifying that it changes accordingly when a person experiences improvements or challenges to their quality of life (e.g., unemployment, health problems, or getting a pay rise). 

The COVID-19 pandemic provided a strong test case. During the two months of lockdown during the circuit breaker (April and May of 2020), the life satisfaction of older Singaporeans dropped significantly and reports of social isolation increased (reported in a ROSA research brief). This shows that self-reported well-being can serve as a meaningful indicator of how people are experiencing their lives.
Secondly, by comparing how different subgroups of people are faring in terms of their self-reported well-being, policymakers can direct more initiatives to help those demographics. For example, older adults who were living alone reported feeling much more socially isolated than those living with others. The Singapore government was aware of this early on and frequently kept this group in mind to provide support and resources.

Q5: How can organisation leaders, government leaders and policymakers create a culture that prioritises the well-being of each individual?

Assoc Prof Tov: One thing that leaders can do is design policies and procedures that support the autonomy of people–give them the freedom to pursue opportunities that they are interested in or help them to balance different areas of their lives. The option to work from home from time to time is an example of a practice that grants autonomy to workers and also helps them to balance family obligations with work obligations. Some organisations offer sabbaticals during which time, employees can work on developing new skills, leading to personal growth. 

At the same time, it is important to cultivate a sense of community. There’s nothing wrong with solitude, but some people use their autonomy to isolate themselves entirely from others, which may not be good for their well-being in the long term. The built environment can potentially play a role in facilitating social interactions if common areas are available and open to residents. But some social scaffolding may also be needed – creating events or volunteering opportunities that bring people together and into contact with individuals of different ages.

Q6: How has the emergence of online experts (e.g. social media users positioning themselves as wellness experts) and self-help books impacted the public’s education on well-being?

Assoc Prof Tov: This is a great question and one that should probably be studied in more detail. I believe that some are trying their best to draw on research from positive psychology. This is helpful in some ways because they are bringing more awareness to the fact that scientists are taking happiness seriously (as funny as that sounds) and that we are trying to understand how people can enhance and sustain their well-being. 

However, it is important for people to do their own reading and education on the science of well-being. Some scholars such as Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener have written books to introduce the general public to this science. At the very least, I think it’s important for people to realise that people can change their happiness levels but it takes work and a lot of careful reflection. One of the biggest factors that affect our well-being–aside from meeting our basic physical and social needs–is our own attitude and perspective on life. There are lots of suggestions out there, and some are effective, but there are no quick fixes.

Q7: Can happiness be taught as a syllabus? What would this look like and how can this be done on a nationwide level?

Assoc Prof Tov: In contrast to mental health more generally, which is also an important topic in itself, teaching happiness would specifically focus on the everyday factors that influence a person’s own well-being. There are so many decisions we make every day–what to do, who to spend time with, and how much time to spend doing x-y-z. The science of well-being focuses a lot on this aspect of mental health. It helps us think more about the choices we make and how these can affect our happiness in daily life. It also draws attention to our own attitudes and beliefs and how these can enhance or interfere with our well-being.

I believe happiness can be taught as part of a larger course on well-being and mental health. It would require an interdisciplinary effort with teachers, social scientists, medical doctors, social workers, and other members of government and industry to agree on the critical concepts that are useful–especially in the Singapore context. Educators across different levels would also be needed to determine how to introduce these concepts to students of different ages.

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Q8: What can people do in their everyday life to promote and sustain their well-being, instead of only taking action when things take a negative turn? 

Assoc Prof Tov: Promoting our own well-being is a daily practice like exercising or brushing our teeth. One can develop a routine by consistently making time to do things they enjoy, while also creating regular opportunities to stop and reflect on the goodness around them. You don’t want to wait until your muscles atrophy or your teeth start falling out. Attention is critical. We are often drawn to negative information–in the news and often in the people around us. In some ways, our minds are wired to detect problems quickly so that we can take action sooner. 

The good things around us – like that security guard who smiled and said hi to you as you entered the building, or the cashier at the market who packed your groceries carefully – don’t spark that same sense of urgency–and are soon forgotten.

Many happiness activities or “positive psychological interventions” are designed to heighten our attention and memory of these positive experiences. This can include gratitude journals where you take note of someone or something you are grateful for that day, or savouring exercises where you take your time to enjoy a pleasant experience – like eating dinner or just playing a card game with friends. These activities are meant to be simple enough to do fairly often, but a problem is that if you do the same activity every day–you can easily become bored with it and its effect can wear off. Variety is important. So different activities can be done every few days or the same activity can be done in different ways. For example, instead of gratitude journaling, one could write a gratitude letter.  

Q9: What do you hope to see more of in the near future? 

Assoc Prof Tov: I hope that schools and universities can increasingly promote well-being literacy so that students can appreciate the science of well-being and more importantly, understand that taking care of their well-being and happiness is not a selfish endeavour. A happy person is more likely to be healthier, to be interested in socialising and helping other people, and to be valued as an employee and work colleague. We all win when we and the people around us are happy.

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Methodology & References
  1. Duke NUS (2023). Duke-NUS, IMH: Cost of anxiety and depression in Singapore runs into the billions. Duke NUS. Retrieved from https://www.duke-nus.edu.sg/allnews/cost-of-anxiety-and-depression-in-sg-runs-into-the-billions
  2. ROSA. Welcome To The Centre For Research On Successful Ageing (ROSA). ROSA. Retrieved from https://rosa.smu.edu.sg/
  3. Health Hub. MindSG. Health Hub. Retrieved from https://www.healthhub.sg/programmes/186/mindsg/about-mental-well-being?utm_source=google&utm_medium=paid-search&utm_campaign=fy23mh_ao&utm_content=about_mental_well-being_adgroup&gclid=CjwKCAjw_aemBhBLEiwAT98FMv0zprS_kVqCVK8mL6q4bRzzvO_UvxIQUlQBNgxt_sTHUxM5FF20sBoCLQMQAvD_BwE#home
  4. Tan, M., Straughan, P., Tov, W., Cheong, W. and Lim, W. (Feb 2021). The Psychosocial Well-being of Older Adults in COVID19 and the ‘New Normal’. ROSA. Retrieved from https://rosa.smu.edu.sg/sites/rosa.smu.edu.sg/files/WorkingPapers/COVID-~3.PDF
  5. Ed Diener. Ed Diener. Ed Diener. Retrieved from {https://eddiener.com/
  6. Dr. Robert Diener. Positive Psychology Speaker. Robert Diener. Retrieved from https://robertdiener.com/