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Ingredients of a Good Life: How do Southeast Asians Tackle the Pursuit of Happiness?

Pursuit of Happiness in Southeast Asia

In a world filled with diverse aspirations and dreams, the quest for happiness endures as a central, universal goal. Our latest ASEANScan study, “Healthy, Wealthy, or Wise? The Pursuit of Happiness in Southeast Asia,” delves into the hearts and minds of Southeast Asians to find out whether those in the region chase after wealth, prioritize intelligence, guard their health, seek solace in spirituality, or yearn for the warmth of love. To find these answers, we spoke to over 9,000 respondents across Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Here’s what we found.

Show me the Money, Honey!

When asked to choose between being healthy, wealthy, or wise for the rest of their lives, almost half (48%) of those surveyed chose wealth, highlighting the allure of financial prosperity. This hunger for wealth is most dominant among the youth, with 73% of Southeast Asians aged 15-24 placing this wish at the top of their desires. In comparison, less than a quarter (24%) of the older generations picked wealth as their no.1 wish – wisdom dawning as one gets older, perhaps?

The generational differences continue even when it comes to money’s overall importance in life. When asked, “What contributes to enjoying a good life?”, a notable 32% of Southeast Asians selected money and wealth as the primary factor. This financial fervour is again greatest among the younger generation, with over three in five (62%) young Southeast Asians placing wealth at the top of their list.

Looking at responses at the country level, Singaporean youth take the lead here, with nearly three quarters (73%) choosing money as their top pick. Again, in perhaps the starkest of comparisons, a mere 4% of the older generation picked this! It is clear then that while prioritising material abundance is common for Southeast Asians, it is far more pronounced in the younger generations.

The Power of Sound Judgment

Intelligence and sound judgment was selected as a key factor for a good life by 23% of the respondents, showcasing at least a modest appreciation for mental acumen. This was also on top of the list for Thais (30%), who placed it well before even money. For Malaysians, too, intelligence and judgment is almost on par with money (33% vs 34%) when it comes to enjoying a good life. An intriguing revelation, however, unfolds within this category, as 67% of Malaysians aged 35-49 years old select intelligence and sound judgment as their primary choice, perhaps a sign of getting wiser as one transitions into maturity!

As for the question on lifelong wishes, 28% of Southeast Asians expressed the desire for intelligence and knowledge, showing that while not as keenly prioritised as wealth, a sound mind is still considered a powerful virtue. In comparing views across age demographics, we see that it is the 35-49 age group (again!) that especially values intelligence, with more than half (51%) selecting it. Between countries, it is the Thais who prioritise intelligence most, where nearly half (48%) picked being smarter as their ultimate wish.

Lifelong Wealth Trumps Lifelong Health…Unless You’re Old or Singaporean!

Health isn’t on the wish list of most Southeast Asians, being pipped even by both wealth and intelligence, with only 24% of respondents picking it. But attitudes differ quite significantly between countries. For instance, 37% of Singaporeans consider health the most important aspect of their lives – indeed, their number one wish overall – revealing their penchant for well-being and longevity. This sentiment is somewhat shared by Thais and Filipinos who at least place it second among their wishes!  

Seeking Solace in Spirituality, Love and Romance

In answer to our question about factors contributing to a good life, 17% of those surveyed, cited religion and spirituality – and presumably the solace and purpose they provide for many – as important to them. But earthly love comes a distant fifth, with only 8% choosing it as a defining element of a good life. Crisis situations, such as the recent Covid-19 pandemic, usually show us that our emotional bonds hold the power to inspire, comfort, and uplift spirits, so finding it to be the least of our priorities could signal a worrying trend of growing materialism within society.

Blackbox’s Take: Happiness Is Complicated!

Evidently, the pursuit of happiness in Southeast Asia is a complex tapestry woven from various threads, influenced by age and nationality. While wealth and prosperity continue to be a common thread, intelligence, health, and spiritual solace also play a role, albeit in comparatively smaller measures. While it is concerning to find that Southeast Asian youths are especially obsessed with money, one can take solace in the fact that our findings indicate that wisdom usually tends to dawn as one gets older, with wiser heads valuing intelligence and health more with each passing year.

The findings of our study underscore the intricate nature of happiness and reminds us that, ultimately, the path to a fulfilling life is as diverse as the people seeking it.

This is the first in our series of articles from our recent study, ‘Healthy, Wealthy, or Wise? The Pursuit of Happiness in Southeast Asia’.

Author: Blackbox Research Team


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