FAITH IS IMPORTANT: A recent survey showed that high gross domestic product does not ensure happiness
WERE you surprised reading the New Straits Times on Dec 22 that Gallup Poll results from a survey of "positive emotions" showed Singapore scored last out of 148 countries although it is among the five wealthiest countries in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita?
Even war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan scored better!
One blogger commented: "When you run a country like a business instead of a country, what do you expect?"
Gallup concluded that "societies like Singapore need to do more to incorporate well-being into their leadership strategies".
People responded to questions such as whether they experienced a lot of enjoyment the day before, whether they felt respected, were well-rested, and laughed and smiled a lot.
These findings fly in the face of earlier results of The World Happiness Study prepared by Columbia University and released by the United Nations, which rated Singapore 33rd, above Malaysia at 51st place.
Singapore is a secular state unlike Malaysia which has a state religion.
Perhaps there is a message in that eight of the top 10 countries with the most positive people in the Gallup survey were Catholic Latin American countries.
That Singapore could score 33rd in one assessment and last in another raises the question on where do Singaporeans and Malaysians really lie in terms of happiness. It also suggests "happiness" as a concept is difficult to nail down and measure.
Related to this is the debate whether economic progress measured by GDP per capita can confidently reflect social well-being.
A big dampener to the use of GDP statistics to represent well-being was the finding by the Fordham Institute that from 1970 to 2001 in the United States, GDP grew by more than 150 per cent while social health actually worsened by 38 per cent.
Furthermore, researchers recently assessing well-being in Canada found that most indices showed only small well-being increases since 1971 but with declines in recent years.
This relationship is backed up by US Professor Richard Easterlin who initiated the concept of "happiness economics" in the 1970s.
He found that once people had incomes sufficient for their basic needs, average reported levels of happiness do not increase much with increasing national income per person.
In this regard Angus Deaton and Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman in 2010 found in the US that income had a positive impact on emotions only up to earnings of US$75,000 (RM230,000) annually, after which additional income does not make much difference.
These trends suggest caution against just equating GDP increases directly with well-being.
For example, free time is not included in a GDP analysis. While some people may be happier working just four days a week, this would show negatively on the national GDP account.
A country could be very industrious with a high GDP but its population may be overworked and sick, which represents a low level of well-being.
If GDP increases because more policemen are employed to combat an increase in street crime, or if a few bankers get richer, average income may go up, improving the estimated per capita GDP even though most individuals' incomes and well-being declined.
British Prime Minster David Cameron and France's former president Nicolas Sarkozy are supporters of evaluating national well-being together with GDP indicators. In Malaysia, the Economic Planning Unit also produces a Malaysia Quality of Life Index.
It is a credit to the architect of Malaysia's Vision 2020 that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad outlined "establishing a fully moral and ethical society whose citizens are strong in religious and spiritual values" as one of the nine challenges to achieve developed country status.
This is a key missing ingredient from the Western governments' concept of progress measured by economic and social indicators bereft of religious anchoring.
Vision 2020 was further strengthened by the contributions of former prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi who added Islam Hadhari, or Civilisational Islam, as a means of modernisation with its emphasis on human values, spirituality, and following the middle path (wasatiyyah), such as between material progress and keeping the ultimate spiritual destination in mind.
Religions teach that acquiring material benefits is not the "be all and end all" of human endeavour but are means towards achieving a high spiritual outcome.
The balanced Malaysian approach is in line with research by Australian writer Ann Warren in Thriving in Your Life and Ministry that showed religious belief and practice enhanced the well-being of people by providing them meaning and a purpose to life, and a sense of direction.
Religious observance and spirituality further offers a moral code and belief system to live by, enhances self-control, promotes dietary and health practices that contribute to well-being, builds self-esteem, provides social and spiritual support, and contributes to a sense of optimism and hope.
Such benefits are well demonstrated by a Malaysian study conducted on 250 students from four universities and two colleges around Kuala Lumpur.
Among the Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist participants, it found that reciting prayers, reading scriptures, attending religious functions and meditation played a very important role in developing psychological well-being.
Abdullah's call at a four-day colloquium on Dec 17 to encourage more public and private institutions to set up national Rukun Negara secretariats to instil positive values in their graduates, deserves support.
Rukun Negara, or the Pillars of the Country, rests on a strong religious foundation and was formulated to shape lasting unity between the different races.
A widespread and deeper understanding of the Rukun Negara can also engender faster realisation of the 1Malaysia concept.
An understanding of these issues provides confidence that by 2020 with the twinning of economic progress and spirituality, Malaysia stands a good chance of achieving its aim of heightened well-being for its citizens
Dr Daud Batchelor New Straits Times Opinion Columnist 1 January 2013