Who is Happier in Hong Kong: Those Earning More or Giving More?

By June 2, 2015Events, Seminar

Date: May 22 2015
Feature Speaker: Dr. Qijin CHENG


To improve the public understanding and awareness on the relationship between poverty and mental well-being, a series of seminars is held by the Hong Kong Jockey Club Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention, the University of Hong Kong. Dr. Cheng presented the relationship between giving, earning, and happiness.

The awareness of the pursuit of happiness had been raising from individuals’ goal to government’s goal. While happiness can be rated by experiential or evaluative measures, Dr. Cheng’s talk focused on the evaluative measures of happiness through different scales, such as Life Satisfaction Scale Quality Scale and Subjective Happiness Scale.

Her studies aimed to find out whether giving, which also known as pro-social or altruistic behaviours, could be a key to happiness in Hong Kong, after controlling for earning, gender and age. She also wanted to study if the exhibition of more than one type of altruistic behavior would add value to happiness. Giving referred to the voluntarily behaviours of giving time or belongings to increase others’ welfare, especially those who are not close to you, without expectation of external reward. For instance, volunteering, money or donation were defined as a form as pro-social behavior. Earning was measured by household income.

Using weighted least square regression methods to analyze data of the Hong Kong Panel Study of Social Dynamics (HKPSSD), she found that both volunteering and donation were associated with significantly greater happiness, but being male and living in low income household were associated with significantly lower happiness. When only examining donation but not volunteering, being middle-aged was also associated with significantly lower happiness.

Dr. Cheng also replicated the study by using the data of 2014 Hong Kong Altruism Index Survey, which she conducted with Prof. Paul Yip last year. The Altruism Index includes eleven types of altruistic behaviours. These behaviours ranged from offering seat, helping neighbor to take care of people or pets to donating money and goods to charity organizations. Her second study found that the higher score of Altruism Index, which indicates a person had exhibited more types of altruistic behaviors, was significantly associated with greater life satisfaction. At the same time, lower household income, and being middle-aged were associated with significantly lower life satisfaction.

In summary, Dr. Cheng’s two studies consistenly found that people who gave more were happier in Hong Kong, while people living in low income households were unhappier, after controlling for each other, gender, and age. She asked for more studies to investigate whether there is a causal relationship between the behaviours and happiness, and also explore the underlying psychological mechanisms of pro-social behaviours.

The encouragement and facilitation of those earning more to share more, for example, money, goods, and time with the underprivileged could be a focus of public policy, as compassion and empathy could be trained and increased. As found in the 2014 Altruism Index Survey, the lack of information was one of the main reasons why people did not do volunteering or donation. Dr. Cheng suggested the use of social media to provide easy access to the information as well as helping stories. Meanwhile, Dr. Cheng reminded that her findings should not to be used as a recommendation that people should donate and volunteer more in order to become happier. Dr. Cheng emphasized that there is no sufficient evidence to confirm a causal relationship from giving to happiness. And more importantly, we should respect the fundamental basis of pro-social giving – voluntary.

She urged to the government to set their goals not only to relieve the poverty problem, but also to increase happiness. Apart from putting more people to work and providing monetary subsidies, the government could also develop public policy on work-life balance, including encouraging and allowing workers the opportunity to volunteer. The government should also consider to include the assessment of happiness or subjective well-being into key social indicators.