The Meaning of Life on Business Times Singapore

AT THE END of one group session, participants of the recent TEDxSingapore Salon event each wrote on a piece of paper what made them happy. These included things such as “Riding a bicycle”, “Hugging a dog/cat/any large enough pet”, “Going to Bhutan” and “Calling my Dad”. They were then asked to crush the paper into a ball and throw it in any direction in the room. Subsequently each of them had to pick up one of these balls, read what was written, and carry out the activity when they could. Melanie Yong took out her phone immediately and called her Dad. “I got an easy one,” she said with a grin.

Before the groups dispersed, they pondered the 10 large boards on which all of them had earlier scribbled the things that deeply mattered to them. These included ‘Unconditional Love’, ‘Compassion’, ‘Dreams’, ‘Travel’, ‘Comfort’, ‘Courage To Evolve’ and ‘Simplicity’. Perhaps naively, no one wrote ‘Money’ – even though this may be needed for ‘Travel’, ‘Comfort’ and ‘Dreams’.

But the thrust of the TEDxSingapore’s event, which marked its 10th anniversary this year, was to think of life beyond money and the material. As Dave Lim, founder of TEDxSingapore, put it: “Singapore needs to think about how we can fulfill the ‘happiness’ part of our pledge that goes: ‘So as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation’. Many of us recited the pledge in school, but it’s become rote. We talk about ‘prosperity and progress’ all the time. But we don’t talk about what makes us happy. As a result, we commit all sorts of mistakes and misactions when we search for happiness and fulfilment.”

On the Marina One stage one Saturday afternoon, four expert speakers shared words of wisdom on how to lead a good, meaningful life. Angela Ng, a corporate consultant and “human experience designer”, explained: “There is no one form or standard of happiness. We define what happiness is to us, and what that looks like changes at different phases of our lives.” Founder of positive psychology firm Happiness Scientists, Yeo Sha-En, gave insights into the science of happiness. Psychiatrist Christopher Cheok examined addictions as “thieves of happiness”. HR expert Deborah Peterson explored how to make work work better for us.

A common thread in their observations is that many Singaporeans can lead happy, meaningful lives if we can define what we really want, temper our expectations of what we can and cannot achieve, and accept the full range of experiences that life has to offer – including failure, loss, grief, disappointment and heartache.

Happiness is not a one-size-fits-all descriptor. Meaning cannot be manufactured for you by someone else. Only you can determine what a good, meaningful life looks like for yourself.


Dr Cheok, president of Singapore Psychiatric Association, gave a grave assessment of Singaporeans’ love of the material: “Consumerism has crept into Singaporean lives, making us spend our money as we try to buy more and more. But these things don’t contribute to our well-being as much as we think they do. Society tells us that getting the 5 Cs (car, condominium, credit card, cash and club membership) would make us happy. But I think that is a myth…

“While I’d be the first to say that it’s everyone’s responsibility to be economically stable… I think you don’t need (the 5 Cs) to make you happy. We all come from such diverse backgrounds and have such diverse personalities. And the things that can make us happy are just as diverse.”

Ms Ng, a longtime corporate consultant, has been using the design thinking approach to help people discover what gives them joy and fulfillment. Design thinking is a business methodology of observing and understanding the target user, conceptualising new products and services for the user, and then testing them to see if they have lasting appeal.

“But after studying it for 20 years, I realise the process can also be used for our lives,” she said. “We start by examining ourselves and developing insights into our personality. We then draw up the different options that we can pursue to improve our well-being. Subsequently we draw out a tentative life map. We experiment with different parts of it to see how well they work. We tweak some parts until we get the map right. And even years after that, we keep tweaking it because our personalities and needs will change.”

A happy and meaningful life doesn’t fall into your lap. It needs to be purposefully constructed and repeatedly challenged.

“But the difficulty of designing your happiness,” warned Ms Ng, “ is that we don’t always read our emotions accurately. We have blindspots that stop us from discovering greater meaning and satisfaction. For instance, we might fear doing certain things, even if that fear is just courage waiting to surface when we face up to it.”

How then to see past one’s blindspots? Does one need a therapist or counsellor? Ms Yeo said: “Not necessarily. You can turn to someone who knows you well, such as a friend or a family member, for their honest opinions. Alternatively there are psychological tests out there that you could do to find out your strengths and weaknesses.”

The experts agreed that everyone needs to find their own path towards hope, meaning and purpose. But the journey will likely be long and winding.


On the topic of work, Ms Peterson drew chortles from the audience when she told them to just ignore their bosses when they’re being unreasonable. She said: “Don’t give away your ability to be happy to somebody else, in the mistaken hope that he or she – such as your boss – can make you happy… If your boss tells you that you are responsible for his happiness, you should tell them that you were not born to make him happy.”

Ms Peterson, who’s held senior HR positions in several companies such as Hilton Worldwide and the Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group (now rebranded as the Radisson Hotel Group), said many workers face mounting pressures at work such as increased workload, challenging targets, the lack of staff and the fear of being made redundant. As businesses go global, many executives straddle time-zones, making their work hours even longer.

Ms Peterson said the antidote to these challenges is learning to compartmentalise one’s life so that one task doesn’t bleed into another – for instance, having a strict practice of not checking email on Sundays or not picking up calls during a family meal.

She also said it’s crucial to always question what value and meaning you’re bringing to your work – “there are too many executives who burn out trying to deliver goals which turn out to have very little value and meaning to the organisation…. So if you sense you’re burning out – as I once did – you have to have a conversation with your management about sustainability. You have to negotiate for a better work-life balance. You have to help the organisation remember that productivity has a framework.

“We spend a significant chunk of our lives at work, so why shouldn’t we be invested in wanting that chunk to be happy and meaningful? Help the organisation help you make that a reality.”

She admitted, though, not everyone is lucky enough to find a profession or a workplace they enjoy. In the worst-case scenarios, she suggested seeking options that can make you “less unhappy”. She said: “Take a leaf from Meik Wiking, CEO of The Happiness Research Institute in Denmark, which is frequently named the world’s happiest country. When he was interviewed, he said: It’s probably more accurate and more helpful to think of Denmark as the least unhappy country… Now to me, that’s not semantics. One should explore the ways that can make one less unhappy – especially where work is concerned.”


In a 2017 feature published in National Geographic titled These Are The World’s Happiest Places, Singapore, Denmark and Costa Rica were singled out as three very happy countries. But each scored quite differently on the five categories of well-being polled by Gallup in 2015/2016.

Costa Rica, for instance, scored low in the “financial” category, with a GDP per capita of US$11,895 (compared to Singapore’s US$65,627), and only 25 percent of its population consider themselves financially secure. However, it scored high in the other four categories, namely “social”, “community”, “purpose” and “physical”, with almost half of the population reportedly thriving in these categories. The poll suggests that many Costa Ricans have strong ties with family and friends, enjoy their work and hobbies, and are generally active and healthy – despite being less wealthy than Singaporeans and the Danes.

Singapore, on the other hand, had the opposite results. It did very well in the “financial” category with 56 percent of its population considering themselves financially secure. However, it scored low in all the other categories, namely “social” (24 percent), “community” (27 percent), “physical” (21 percent) and “purpose” (17 percent). The poll suggests that Singapore’s pursuit of wealth comes at some cost to other well-being factors – in particular “purpose”, where only 17 percent of Singaporeans think they have a clear purpose in life.

According to Gallup, people who score high in the “purpose” category “like what they do each day and are motivated to achieve their goals… whether they work for a company, are self-employed, care for family members, pursue education, work on a farm, or engage in charity work. They also tend to be highly engaged in their work, are emotionally invested in what they do and focus on creating value through their efforts.”

According to Dr Cheok, many Singaporeans today pursue what society expects of them, from the right schools and the right jobs, to the latest fashion and food fads. “But if we don’t spend time examining ourselves to discover who we really are and what makes us tick, we might not feel a sense of well-being because what we’ve achieved is not in harmony with the person that we are. Happiness comes when what we’re doing is in sync with our intrinsic personality, we feel connected to the world around you, and we don’t feel false, forced or non-authentic.”

The clearly-defined path to success that all Singaporeans know like the back of their hands may not be right for everyone – but many walk on it anyway even if they don’t like it. This could explain why over 80 percent of Singaporeans don’t have a clear purpose in life.

But if you fall into this majority, what can you do? Ms Yeo of Happiness Scientists said: “It’s not uncommon for people not to know their purpose. Some people are fortunate enough to be in touch with their emotions, needs and wants; others not so much… For the latter group, I suggest you take your first steps towards introspection.

“You begin by asking yourself after each experience: ‘What did I get out of it? How do I feel about it? What strengths or weaknesses did the experience bring out in me?’ This will gradually help you understand yourself more intimately.

“Eventually, you will have a better sense of who you are and what you want. And the awareness of what you’re good or bad at takes you closer to what you want to pursue in life (because people tend to pursue activities they’re naturally good at). And when you can use that ability in service of something bigger than yourself, that’s when you find your purpose in life.”

Towards the close of the TedxSingapore event, Mr Lim projected a word cloud created by the participants who listed all the things that bring meaning to their lives. The words appearing in the biggest fonts (suggesting these were most commonly cited by participants) were ‘love’, ‘family’, ‘people’ and ‘connecting’. Meanwhile ‘work’, ‘success’ and ‘achieving’ were featured in smaller fonts. At least for the participants of TedxSingapore, they knew what mattered most.