What’s this? We have a little rash of stories warning that, as one headline put it, “UK move ‘won’t make your kids happy’, expert warns”. This is supposed, perhaps, to be a reproof to parents contemplating a BNO move to the UK “for the sake of the children.”

This all started with a Letter from Hong Kong. This is an RTHK radio programme which, for many years, occasionally featured me. The performer talks — for I think it was 12 minutes — on any topic of his or her choice. No doubt the performers are chosen rather carefully these days.

Some Hong Kong children play at a musical fountain in Kwun Tong. Photo: GovHK.

Last week’s star was Prof Ho Lok-sang, a retired economist. I have serious misgivings about economists studying happiness, an elusive and less quantifiable thing than their usual prey. But Prof Lo has worked in the area before and in 2015 actually published a piece in the usual academic circles on an Annual Happiness Index in Hong Kong, which would make interesting reading now.

However, the news hook to which Prof Ho hung his comments was a report by the Boys and Girls Association of Hong Kong, which said that happiness among Hong Kong youngsters had fallen to its lowest level in five years. It also found, though this did not feature so prominently in media reports, that about 10 per cent of Hong Kong youngsters thought they would emigrate in the near future.

Well as a matter of common sense, leaving the economics out of it, I must say I rather agree with Prof Ho that emigrating is not in itself going to make the kids happy. My parents moved a lot when I was very small – we lived in Germany for a while, a daring choice in the late 1940s – and as long as the family was together it just seemed a minor background thing that we lived like gypsies.

File photo: GovUK.

Emigration is stressful. On the other hand staying in Hong Kong is likely to be stressful as well, under present circumstances. Prof Ho’s advice that we should all “nurture a mind which is at ease with ourselves” is good, but perhaps a bit beside the point. Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage, sang the poet, but the thought of being consigned to the hospitality of the Correctional Services for opining that voting in the new system would be a waste of time is still off-putting.

Having disposed of the common sense point, I must say I thought the statistical evidence very questionable. Measuring people’s happiness is inherently tricky. Small changes in the circumstances in which the question is asked can produce drastic changes in the answers. And questions like “How happy are you with your life these days” involve cultural influences which comparisons of the GDP figures do not have to worry about.

Prof Ho offers for comparison three sets of figures. The first is the Boys and Girls one. The second is an annual exercise called the Good Childhood Report, conducted by something called the Children’s Society, which is an offshoot of the Church of England.

Ho Lok-sang. Photo: Lingnan University.

The report says that the level of happiness of British children has declined for five years in a row. I am not sure that that comes as a great surprise, in view of events in the UK over the period.

More contentiously it goes on to cite a survey conducted in 2018 which found that British children were in some respects among the least happy in Europe. Actually this is a partial result of the PISA survey of education systems, and only applies to 15-year-olds. The Children’s Society tweaked it a bit but it is true that on this measure the Brits were quite gloomy.

Now I think we need to be a bit careful with the Children’s Society. It is a charity, and like most charities it needs a good cause which will attract donations. It thrives on bad news and those who thrive on bad news can usually find it somewhere.

I also believe that the comparison with Europe is no doubt very relevant for potential British donors to children’s needs, but quite unfair if put to Prof Ho’s purpose, which is to imply that kids in the UK are less happy than those in Hong Kong, so moving there will make your offspring miserable.

European Union Flags in Brussels. Photo: Wiktor Dabkowski, via Flickr.

Concentrating on Europe means setting a very high standard. The big global survey of happiness among adults is the World Happiness Report, which covers more than 100 countries. The top places are invariably filled by Scandinavian countries, followed by other European democracies. The latest figure has Finland as the world’s happiest country, the UK at number 18 (Taiwan at 19 is the top Asian… euphemism) China at 52 and Hong Kong at 66.

Over the three years 2018-20 the top three were Finland, Denmark and Switzerland, with UK 17, Hong Kong 77 and China 84. These results are fairly stable. The previous three years: Finland 1, Denmark 2, Norway 3, UK 15, Hong Kong 76, China 93.

Another way of looking at it is to ignore the rankings and look at the actual figures from the PISA questions. True, the Brit results were depressing when compared with some others, but 64 per cent of the respondents were satisfied with their lives, 93 per cent reported a high level of happiness generally, 40 per cent said they were rarely or never sad and 57 per cent had no complaints about their sense of the purpose of life. 

If you wanted to risk a visit from the Nat Sec police you could tentatively draw from all of the above that becoming more like China will make Hong Kong a bit less happy and moving to the UK will make anyone more happy, though not as happy as if they moved to Finland. This is probably drawing more from the statistics than is justified.

SKH St James’ Primary School on National Security Education Day. Photo: GovHK.

Actually whatever the factors in society which produce these national differences, they will be quite overwhelmed in the case of individual people and families by more immediate events: the exam goes badly, the dog dies, the parents divorce, an expected promotion does not materialise, the house falls down…

It is right that people contemplating emigration anywhere should be warned that they are not diving into a bed of roses. The UK is no exception. You will not like the climate and some of the people are prejudiced. On the other hand you can say what you like and you will never have to listen to the March of the Volunteers again. Your choice. 

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Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.