OPINION: Happiness and the art of taking unscheduled breaks in Hong Kong

HONG KONG (China Daily/ANN) - . With student suicides and general disgruntlement among the youth, Hong Kong is often labeled as an unhappy place to live in.

On a busy workday, in the middle of standard newsroom scramble, a colleague shared his dismay at the passing of the distinguished Australian poet Les Murray. A conversation followed and I was introduced to Murray properly. There is no greater pleasure than the chance discovery of the great and as poetry was discussed with favorites cited and references made to experiences that had actually rendered episodes of rapt absorption into something lyrical, I was grateful to the colleague for making my day.

It is the small things in life that enrich us by quietly insinuating themselves into the quotidian fabric that we have wrapped so tightly around ourselves. Leading a wired life in a wired city, we often forget to take a break, or take an aimless walk, go watch a random film, eat a meal prepared solely to be relished, smile at a child’s delight, watch the sea heave, laud a stranger’s kindness — all of this and much more without any defined goal of self-gratification. 

Yet, it is necessary. Just as one needs the conscious refinement to appreciate the finer things in life (and the rat race that goes with it), it is necessary to learn when to step back and to, sometimes, let enjoyment take over agenda.

Hong Kong is often labeled as an unhappy place to live in. With student suicides and general disgruntlement among the youth, the quality of life question refuses to go away.

The 2019 World Happiness Report, published in March by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, ranked Hong Kong 76th among 156 countries or regions surveyed. In 2018, a Gallup International poll found Hong Kong to be the 7th unhappiest place in the world.

Not all unhappiness, of course, stems from a lack of material accoutrements or societal lapses. Seeking happiness is also a matter of cultivation, a conscious conditioning that is not tied to tiers of peer-reviewed ideas of attainment and usually separates gratification from going with the flow.

Hong Kong’s ingrained culture of intense competitiveness is often blamed for blunting the finer senses needed to find a balance, for making people so self-conscious that they prefer a smartphone-induced parallel life and many come across as aloof, resistant to social interaction. 

In fact, Hong Kong has a rising class of hikikomori — a condition of extreme social isolation first identified in Japan in the 1990s. A former Japanese envoy was arrested on June 1 on suspicion of killing his son because he feared his adult son — a recluse — could do public harm following the report of a similarly withdrawn knife-wielding man slashing at a group of schoolgirls, killing two and injuring 17 recently in Japan.

According to reports, once stereotyped as videogame-playing young men, Japan’s recluses aged from 40 to 64 number more than 610,000, according to a government survey released in March while a separate survey put those aged between 15 and 39 at 540,000. From accounts of nongovernmental organizations, it would appear that Hong Kong’s legion of hikikomori is growing though awareness of it seems to be superficial and data sketchy.

It’s good that there is a stronger initiative in the city’s schools to raise mental health awareness. But perhaps what would work better is to give the children a taste of freedom that comes with learning to take a break — an unscheduled one.

Isn’t it sad that it would have to be an acquired taste? 

The author is web editor, in charge of www.chinadailyasia.com.

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