Analyses | Social mobility and wellbeing | 2015-11-10

The Pursuit of Happiness: Assessing Wellbeing in Hong Kong

If you are reading this article while at work, it is likely that you are unhappy with your work-life balance. At least this is the conclusion made by a recent study commissioned by the non-profit group Community Business. [1] 62% of the employees surveyed felt that work-life balance in Hong Kong has worsened in the last 10 years. Respondents felt that they were only halfway towards achieving an ideal balance between work and free time. Fern Ngai, CEO of Community Business, argued that the current business environment is “much more competitive” and has placed employees under a great deal of stress.

Indeed, although Hong Kong boasts the world’s seventh highest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita based on purchasing power parity rates, [2] statistics depicting the overall wellbeing of Hong Kong citizens paint a grim picture. A 2014 global survey conducted by the consulting firm Gallup ranked Hong Kong 120th out of the 145 countries and regions surveyed based on five elements of wellbeing. [3]

How can we resolve the discrepancy between Hong Kong’s high GDP and relatively robust economy with the burgeoning dissatisfaction of its citizens? The answer seems to be that holistic wellbeing cannot be evaluated solely based on income or physical health. A more complete and inclusive wellbeing index is required to assess all of the various factors that contribute to social and economic development.

Of course, “happiness” does not mean the same thing as “quality of life” or “wellbeing.” Both quality of life and wellbeing are closely related general concepts that should ideally incorporate a number of objective indicators, such as GDP and income, along with subjective indicators such as happiness. To that end, economist Angus Deaton has underscored the importance of looking beyond GDP when evaluating progress. The Princeton University professor, who in October was named the winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, has spent his entire career evaluating the complex relationships among poverty, inequality, wellbeing, wealth, and health. [4] His most recent book, “The Great Escape,” depicts how economic growth has enabled millions to “escape” the vicious cycle of poverty and disease.

Yet while Deaton acknowledges the benefits that wealth and technology have had on improving living standards for the global citizenry, he insists that “one cannot assess society, or justice, using living standards alone.” [5]In other words, while income and wealth are important contributors to material wellbeing, Deaton believes it is also important to monitor more subjective social factors, such as “physical and psychological wellbeing, education, and the ability to participate in civil society.” These factors resemble the six key variables used by the World Happiness Report to create national average life evaluations, namely GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and freedom from corruption. [7] Deaton believes that governments must weigh all these disparate indicators to account for the diversity and complexity of life in modern civilisation.

There is ample evidence to suggest that Professor Deaton would be concerned about the current state of affairs in Hong Kong. For example, former Secretary for Food and Health Dr York Chow recently penned an article expressing concern over the state of mental health in Hong Kong. [7] Research from the Lingnan University’s Happiness Index Survey shows that in 2014, the happiness levels of Hong Kong residents with a monthly household income between $10,000 and $20,000 decreased by 6.6% from the previous year. [8] This was the lowest happiness level recorded since 2008. Moreover, in 2014, the happiness of children from all age groups dropped to their lowest recorded levels since 2012. [9]

Happiness is only one contributor to holistic wellbeing. More data is needed before any conclusions can be made about improvements or regressions in the lives of Hong Kong residents. Fortunately, the Centre for the Quality of Life at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) has conducted surveys and published comprehensive indices on wellbeing since 2003. [10] The Hong Kong Quality of Life Index, created by the Centre, measures 21 indicators across Social, Economic and Environmental sub-indices. It also asks participants to self-report stress levels and life satisfaction.

In 2012 the Centre began to survey youth quality of life in Hong Kong. For its July 2015 report, the Centre concluded that the youth quality of life declined over the past 12 months. In particular, the physical health, psychological wellbeing, and political engagement of youth were found to have diminished. Of the 28 indicators, “government performance evaluation” was the most noticeable factor in decline, followed by “satisfaction with youth policy” and “perceived impact on policy.”

Bearing in mind the timing of the Occupy Central protests, these findings are not surprising, though they do confirm the sense that some Hong Kong youth are frustrated with the government. The Happiness Index also demonstrates that many young people are unhappy with their lives as compared to previous years. Yet there is an issue with these indices which prevents them from meaningfully assisting the government in bettering the lives of Hong Kong residents. This is the fact that neither index provides much insight beyond speculative assumptions into the actual causes behind fluctuations in wellbeing.

For example, while Professor Ho Lok-sang of Lingnan University suggested that the decline in children’s happiness may be related to the Occupy Movement and related political controversies, there was no hard evidence from the survey which supported this theory beyond mere correlation. [11] As for the Youth Quality of Life Report, while government performance evaluation is noted as diminishing, there is no substantive inquiry regarding the aspects of government performance that are creating dissatisfaction.

Without additional information, it is impossible to prove that any causational relationship exists between trends such as the Occupy Movement or tensions with Mainland China and the deteriorating wellbeing of Hongkongers. By the same token, there is no data to guide policy makers who may be interested in improving the quality of life of Hong Kong people. Thus, in order for these indices to have any impact on government policy, surveying entities such as the Centre for Quality of Life or the government itself should ask more in-depth questions when assessing subjective social indicators. These questions should specifically seek to uncover the many reasons why respondents feel more content or less content with their lives as compared to previous years.

The difficulties involved in creating a wellbeing index that can lead to concrete policy proposals are immense. But Hong Kong can look to the international community for motivation and guidance. In 2011, the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) launched the Better Life Initiative, which aimed to measure wellbeing by looking at material conditions and quality of life through eleven dimensions ranging from income and health to work-life balance, civic engagement, and subjective wellbeing. [12] The Initiative was itself inspired by the Stiglitz Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, published in 2009, which was created to identify the limits of GDP as an indicator of economic performance and social progress. [13]

Several countries have implemented their own programmes corresponding with the purposes of the Better Life Initiative. For example, in 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron introduced the “Wellbeing Measure” into the United Kingdom. [14] The Office for National Statistics has published surveys on the wellbeing of British citizens since 2012. And in 2011, the Canadian government announced the Canadian Wellbeing Index, with the purpose of “conducting rigorous research on the quality of life” and enabling politicians to “make decisions based on solid research.” [15] Though these initiatives are still in their early stages, the fact that they were created with governmental support bodes well for reform.

Few countries can claim a more longstanding commitment to holistic wellbeing and happiness than Bhutan. [16] The government has rejected GDP as the sole indicator of progress since 1971. In its place, Bhutan has promoted the so-called Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, which measures spiritual, physical, social, and environmental health. Thakur Powdel, former minister of education of Bhutan, acknowledges that many nations view GNH as an ambiguous or unattainable goal. Ideally, Powdel sees GNH not as a benchmark number or a minimum standard, but rather as “an aspiration, a set of guiding principles through which we are navigating our path towards a sustainable and equitable society.”

Assessing the lives of Hong Kong people using GDP alone insufficiently captures the complexity of the human experience. Yet nothing can be done to improve the wellbeing of Hong Kong residents until lawmakers have enough “solid research” to enact appropriate policies. Given how difficult it is to objectively assess subjective social indicators, this is a daunting task. Still, Hong Kong would not be alone in tackling these challenges. Both the United Kingdom and Canada have attempted to measure the quality of life of their citizens using objective and subjective indicators. Over time, it is likely that more countries will be inspired by the goals of the Better Life Initiative to formulate wellbeing indices.

If you have reached this point of the article, you probably have some questions lingering in your head right now. Why is wellbeing so important, anyway? What is an acceptable level of happiness in society? If we have all the possessions we need to live comfortably, do we have a right to remain unsatisfied with our lives? Answering these questions is as difficult as finding the perfect work-life balance. Every person has their own priorities and these priorities change with time. Therein, however, lies the beauty of the pursuit of happiness. With holistic wellbeing as its aim, Hong Kong society will be constantly encouraged to come up with new ways to improve quality of life in the region. How long this societal pursuit will take is anyone’s guess. But finding out how to measure our progress is the best place to start.



1 Allen Au-Yeung, What Balance? Hong Kong survey shows most working people in city think work-life balance is getting worse, South China Morning Post, October 28, 2015, .
2 The World Bank, GDP per capita, PPP (2015), wbapi_data_value wbapi_data_value-last&sort=desc (last visited Oct. 28, 2015).
3 Gallup-Healthways, 2014 Country Well-Being Rankings (2015), (last visited Oct. 28, 2015).
4 Steve Radelet, Angus Deaton, his Nobel Prize, and foreign aid, Brookings Institution, October 20, 2015, .
5 Angus Deaton, The Great Escape, 17 (Princeton University Press, 2013).
6 Helliwell, John F., Richard Layard, and Jeffrey Sachs, New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network, World Happiness Report 2015, .
7 York Chow, Stigma a stumbling block in Hong Kong’s efforts to promote mental well-being, South China Morning Post, October 28, 2015, .
8 Lok Sang Ho, Centre for Public Policy Studies, Lingnan University, Hong Kong Happiness Index Survey (2014), .
9 Lok Sang Ho, Centre for Public Policy Studies, Lingnan University, Hong Kong Children Happiness Index (2014), .
10 The Centre for Quality of Life at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, MTR-CUHK Youth Quality of Life Index Report (2015), .
11 Lingnan University Survey Reveals that Children’s Happiness Index in 2014 drops to the lowest in three years, Office of Communications and Public Affairs, Lingnan University, April 17, 2015, .
12 The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, OECD Framework for Statistics on the Distribution of Household Income, Consumption and Wealth, OECD Publishing (2013), .
13 Joseph E. Stiglitz, Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (2009), .
14 Office for National Statistics, National Well-being Measures (2015), .
15 University of Waterloo, Canadian Index of Wellbeing: Visions, Missions, Goals and Objectives (2012), (last visited Oct. 28, 2015)
16 Annie Kelly Thimphu, Gross National happiness in Bhutan: the big idea from a tiny state that could change the world, The Guardian, December 1, 2012, .