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Emotionless Singapore?! Emotional Philippines?

Singaporean who complain about a few hours' rare technical disruption of MRT, service might be happy to know that they Singapore tops the world in infrastructure. According to a survey of 221 cities by consulting firm Mercer released on 4th December 2012, Singapore has the world’s best infrastructure. In Mercer's Quality of Living survey, Singapore takes the first place in Asia and the 25th place in the world. Manila on the other hand is ranked in 120 and 128 respectively.  

This come two weeks after Gallup poll publication on the World's Emotions Index on 23rd November 2012  made the headlines with news that" Singapore is the least emotional nation on the planet" and that the "Philippines is the most emotional country in the world". Bloomberg Business-week had published the world emotional map Where the Emotionally Challenged Live. According to the survey, Singaporeans were the least likely to REVEAL experiencing emotions. CNN had commented "The most emotionless society is Singapore's despite its reputation for being among the world's richest" .

Singaporeans, especially the Chinese majority are less comfortable than other nationalities to share information about their private life with strangers or display their emotions in public. 

An earlier Gallup survey on June 2012  Gallup's Negative Experience Index ranked Singapore among the lowest in negative emotions. (Go tell that to the Filipino waiter who was scolded by a local customer). Guess which country is ranked fourth with most negative emotions? ... The Philippines. Having said that, a lot of the research shows that we need to feel negative emotions as well as positive ones for overall well-being. Just avoiding negative emotions is also unhealthy. Everything in moderation.

On November 21st The Economist published a survey on "Where to be born Index". Singapore appears at 6th place and the Philippines only 63rd. If you pose the question to people who were born in the Philippines where would they want to be born, would you be surprised if they answer "in emotional-less Singapore"? 

In the World Happiness Report published by Columbia University's Earth Institute, the Philippines was ranked 103rd out of 155 surveyed countries, and it is said to be the most depressed country in south-east Asia. 

It seems like both Singaporean and Filipinos could learn from one another. Singaporeans can benefit from the good side of emotional Filipinos and their recipes for happiness while Filipinos can learn from the Singaporean prudence, integrity and curbing corruption, safety, planning, investing in education and infrastructure, discipline in execution and management skills. Here are the lessons that each can learn from each other:

  • Gratitude: While many young Singaporean take prosperity for granted, Filipinos earn much more overseas  than their homeland, feel privileged and grateful to get the opportunity to work in wealthy, clean and safe Singapore. There is vast research that shows that practising gratitude and appreciation on a regular basis contribute to positive emotions and our overall well-being. 
  • Service attitude: For the majority of Singaporeans, the image of the service industry is low. When cost of living is so high, and when making money is an ultimate goal, choosing a higher paying job like banking seem to be more attractive than serving others. Filipinos enjoy serving others. They enjoy the social interaction. Research sows that people who are involved in giving feel happier.  
  • Playfulness: There is a great disease in this world and that is being too extreme. Some Singaporeans suffer from over-seriousness. Being playful is not just about being silly for no reason. The new generation wants more than just to work hard, they want to enjoy working, they want to enjoy life. Playfulness is an attitude. In a playful mode, challenges are considered opportunities. Being playful and more flexible opens up for creativity. As Annemarie Steen, one of the world's "gurus" in playfulness at work says: "Playfulness is an attitude of making constructive choices". According to researchers at Penn State over 10 years, contrary to popular perception, stressors do NOT cause health problems -- it's people's reactions to the stressors that determine whether they will suffer health consequences, 
  • Invest and deepen relationships:  After meeting the baseline of basic living standards happiness varies more with the quality of human relationships than with additional increases in income. Many Singaporeans invest most of their free time with their extended families and much less than the Filipinos with their friends.  When the kids leave the nest, those who have invested in other than family relationships will adapt faster to fill the void. What Singaporeans can learn from the Filipinos is how to open up and listen more to each other. 
  • The questions you ask: What are the questions that you ask your family members? Are they often functional and merit based about progress rather than feelings? Are you interested in the emotional well-being of your kids, parents? siblings? friends? Do you counsel each other or you are afraid to be vulnerable?  What do you know about the life of the people who are important in your life? The Filipinos feel safer with their family members and great friends sharing with them not only the good news. This emotional support is crucial to well-being.
  • Celebrate to the fullest: In the first Chinese wedding that I attended, I was shocked twice. The majority of the guests came late and disappeared just after they finished eating. Where I come from, the celebration begins after the food and hardly no one will be late because the ceremony starts on time. If your kids made the best efforts they possibly could in their studies and took it very seriously, it is time to celebrate the effort. Sending a signal that the journey and effort are equally important. "luck favors the prepared" .
  • Have faith:  People who believe in a higher force than just ourselves tend to know the where is the limit of their individual activities. Not everything depends on us. Believers tend to accept life more than non-believers. They can let go when things do not work despite 100% effort. Believers have the benefit of "outsourcing"  worries on things beyond their control. Faith is also about sense of community, developing and cultivating relationship , friendship, helping and giving to the less fortunate ones. 
  • Rest more: One of the five questions in Gallup survey was: "Did you feel well-rested yesterday?". Singaporeans seem to agree that the nation does indeed work excessively long hours. On average 46.6 hours a week – the longest hours in the world. Perhaps it is time for Singaporean employers to check the effectiveness and the total cost of extra-long hours in terms of burnouts and talent loss.
  • Kindness: Singapore is promoting the Kindness movement . The Dalai Lama remarked "Kindness is my religion". Increased affluence and an too much focus on personal achievements, on technology instead of the human, makes people take others for granted. Singaporeans can be very demanding customers often talking without caring about the impact that their negative comments will have on other people. When adopting kindness and compassion, the "ego" is let go and focuses on the important thing - the feelings of the other person.  
  • Simplify: Many things are more simple than they appear. There is a difference between preparing for a tough situation and bogging yourself down constantly with "what if" doomsday prophecies. Being ready for EVERYTHING is like taking four spare tires in the car. The art of simplicity combines focus with probability. Singaporean worries or Filipino tendency to over simplify never solved any issue. Planning and taking action do. Both sides can learn from each other how to balance simplicity with sophistication. Life is complex and the answer is versatility, ability to probe, assess and react to changes without getting stuck in gloomy forecasts.
  • Sing and Dance: The Filipinos love to dance and sing. Dancing releases endorphins and singing with friends is a great social event that connects. Both song and dance happen in the NOW. When we listen to a song, we don't just wait for the end. It is a way to enjoy life as a journey rather than a destination. Singaporean can dance and sing more while the Filipinos could learn about hard work and result orientation from the Singaporeans.  There is time to dance and time to work. 
  • Laugh, smile and clap more: Filipinos laugh more, longer and deeper hearty laughed  They smile more and express their appreciation. The brain rewards them with endorphins and Dopamine which elevate positive emotions. Some Singaporeans take seriousness very seriously. Even in a funny movie, they might ask a person that laughs loud to "lower his volume". 
  • Give ourselves permission to be human: Most of us have a "Chief Critical Officer " living in our head,  criticising us for the things that we did not do well. Sending messages of fear based on past traumas trying to avoid pain even at the cost of our joy. We can really become over judgemental. Perhaps society overrates the importance of pursuit of happiness so we are afraid to show and share what we really feel. We are not designed to be happy all the time however we feel as long as we breath, even in our dreams. It is OK not to be happy. As Oliver Burkeman wrote in his book "The Antidote" : "It involves learning to enjoy uncertainty  embracing insecurity, stopping trying to think positively, becoming familiar with failure, even learn the value of death". 


 John Clifton comment that "Singapore's citizens have an emotional problem. It's not that they have negative or destructive feelings -- it's that they don't feel much of anything" is rather simplistic. Everyone feels emotions. The issue is how to help the new generations handle their emotions both good and build greater emotional resilience.


I conclude with a book recommendation. The most practical book about emotions that I have read so far is the NY Times best seller book "Emotional Equations" by Chip Conley. Chip offers the readers not to ignore their feelings, to experiences them and let them pass through us, just like the weather. Don't become the feeling nor suppress it. Chip gives  his readers understandable means of identifying the elements in our lives that we can change, those we can’t, and how they interact to create the emotions that define us and can help or hurt our progress through life. 

* The writer have lived for 15 years in Singapore since 1992, served in a regional office that was responsible on Singapore and the Philippines. Avi is an Economist and holds MBA in Marketing and Entrepreneurship.  He is an avid learner of Positive Psychology and travels the world to learn new models of happiness. On his quest to explore well-being, Avi had visited Bhutan, Denmark, Philippines, Vienna and planing a trip to Costa Rica. 

Avi is the co-founder of the "Joy-Care Leadership" program that had been adopted by many top organisations in the world .to upgrade their core values towards positive and happier humane centric culture. The Joy Care program applies evidence based tool from Positive Psychology with "Right Brain" of delivery.  

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Tags: Chip, Conley, Emotional, Emotionless, Philippines, Singapore

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