Why are so many older adults in Malaysia unhappy?

Understanding the dynamics of happiness in Malaysia will reveal the existing challenges and barriers to overcome


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By Goh Hong Ching

The annual celebration of the International Day of Happiness fell on 20 March.

This day emerged with the adoption of a resolution in the UN General Assembly in 2012 which decreed that an international day of happiness should be observed annually on 20 March because happiness and wellbeing are universal goals and aspirations around the world.  

This year’s theme “Reconnecting for Happiness: Building Resilient Communities” aims at happiness for the young, the old and everyone in between.

As of 2024, Malaysia was ranked 58th out of 143 countries in life evaluation 2021-2023. The rankings for other Asean member countries were Singapore (30th), the Philippines (53rd), Vietnam (54th), Thailand (57th), Indonesia (80th), Laos (104th), Myanmar (118th) and Cambodia (119th).

Among the criteria used include gross development product (GDP) per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom, generosity and corruption.

The ranking based on age groups was revealed. Malaysia stood at 64th among those aged below 30 (Thailand was 45th) and 71st among those aged above 60 (Thailand 41st, Philippines 43rd and Singapore 26th).

So Malaysian citizens aged 60 and above were the least happy in the country, while those below 30 were the happiest. The “World Happiness Report 2024” quotes from the “Seven Ages of Man” in Shakespeare’s As You Like It: “the later stages of life are portrayed as deeply depressing.”

This quote may well describe the state of mind of many older Malaysian adults.

In our neighbourhoods and social media and press articles, we come across some factors that may contribute to older adults being the least happy group in the country:

  • Financial insecurity, which can result from ineffective financial management after retirement, insufficient savings, low retirement benefits and lack of awareness, thus limiting access to various pension schemes which are only available in more recent years. This financial strain can make it difficult for them to afford basic items such as healthcare, housing and food
  • Limited access to healthcare facilities, long waiting times, and high out-of-pocket expenses also pose barriers to receiving timely and appropriate medical care
  • Social isolation and loneliness are common among older adults in Malaysia, especially those who live alone or have limited social support networks. This is even more significant in rural areas where many of the children migrated to cities seeking better job opportunities. This can have detrimental effects on the mental health and wellbeing of older adults, leading to a wide range of psychosocial issues including depression and anxiety
  • Age discrimination in employment and societal attitudes can limit opportunities for older adults to remain active and engaged in the workforce and community life. Negative stereotypes about ageing can contribute to social exclusion and diminish older adults’ sense of dignity and self-worth
  • The lack of affordable and suitable housing options that are age-friendly and accessible is a challenge for many older adults in Malaysia. The limited availability of affordable housing and the absence of essential accessibility features, along with inadequate infrastructure, create significant obstacles for older adults who wish to age in place comfortably
  • Older adults in Malaysia are at risk of various forms of mistreatment, including financial exploitation, neglect, and physical or emotional abuse. Lack of awareness, social stigma and cultural barriers may prevent victims from seeking help or reporting abuse. This makes it crucial to establish legal protections and rights for older adults, such as access to justice and protection against discrimination and mistreatment, to ensure their wellbeing and dignity
  • Transport and mobility are a problem for many older adults due to limited access to reliable and affordable transport options. This makes it challenging for them to access essential services, social activities and healthcare facilities
  • The digital divide limits many older individuals’ access to digital technologies and the internet. This restricts their ability to stay connected, access information and take advantage of online services, such as telemedicine and e-commerce
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It is thus important to understand the dynamics of happiness among a wide range of age groups (and other demographic factors such as education, marital status and gender) at different geographical regions (eg urban-rural), apart from income levels (which need to be mapped with the cost of living). These factors will reveal the existing challenges and barriers to happiness.

By identifying these factors, we can improve the happiness of older adults in Malaysia. This will assist local authorities, planners and welfare organisations in formulating targeted strategies to create a more inclusive society by studying the inequality of happiness.

Older adults are the greatest treasure of our families, our society and our nation. They have an immense ocean of knowledge, experience and wisdom, which could serve as a guidepost for younger generations. This value is deeply rooted in oriental culture and should be preserved.

Most of all, remember: we all get old one day.

Dr Goh Hong Ching is an associate professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning in the Faculty of Built Environment and chair of the social advancement and happiness research cluster at the University of Malaya.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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