Biz Sch News 26 July 2016

The Happiness Doctor  

It would not be far-fetched to call Associate Professor Siok Tambyah the “happiness doctor”. She does research about happiness and wellbeing and even teaches a course called ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’. In real life, she is happiest when exploring new ideas and places, as well as spending time with family and friends.

She is the go-to person by the media for matters relating to the Singaporean psyche, having co-written several books bearing titles such as “Happiness and Wellbeing: The Singaporean Experience” and “Understanding Singaporeans: Values, Lifestyles, Aspirations and Consumption Behaviors”.  Her other research interests include consumer culture, ethnicity, gender and cross-cultural consumer behaviour.

Assoc Prof Tambyah obtained her bachelor’s degree from the NUS Business School, her PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and then returned to teach at her alma mater. We asked her about life then and now…

How long have you been with the Business School?

A long time — I get a kick out of telling my students that I was once a BBA Marketing Major just like them!  I joined NUS as a senior tutor in 1992, went away for graduate studies during 1993-1999 and started formal teaching in August 1999.

Some of my favourite memories here include having lunch at the Business School canteen with my friends, first as an undergraduate (now, with colleagues), and pottering around the Hon Sui Sen Memorial Library before the advent of digital library resources.

Honors Year Classmates

With Honours Year classmates in 1988 outside the Honours Room in BIZ 2 (from left to right): Pang Kiah Jee, Tong Pik Yi, Sum Yim Ling, Christine Goh Lee Eng, me, Leong Sow Fung (standing), Philip Lim Wei Tong and Mark Chan Boon Kiong.

If I were a student again…

I would probably not have made it to the NUS Business School because I am not a straight-A student!  It’s getting more competitive nowadays and I think many undergraduate students are just trying to keep up with their classes. I am not sure how much they are learning though, and whether they are enjoying their time at the university.

However, if I do make it to the NUS Business School through some miraculous form of discretionary admission, I would like to do an exchange semester in Denmark, one of the happiest places on earth according to several studies on happiness. I recently finished reading a book titled “The Year of Living Danishly” by Helen Russell, a British writer who relocated to Denmark for a year because her husband landed a job there working for Lego.  Denmark and Singapore are similar in size but vastly different in terms of socio-political ideologies.

More importantly, I want to find out why Denmark can have a pretty decent football team while the Singapore team keeps struggling!

One thing I learned later on in life that I wished I had known earlier…

I would not agonise about planning out my life too carefully! For instance, I never thought I would become an academic. However, a timely conversation with my former honours supervisor when I was considering a career switch got me interested in doing a PhD.

Another serendipitous turn was a request from the late Professor Kau Ah Keng, who was the Head of the Marketing Department when I returned from my graduate studies.  He asked if I were keen to work with him and a few colleagues on a research project about the values and lifestyles of Singaporeans.

I agreed. Little did I realise that the research project would grow into a multi-year collaboration that would expand to incorporate issues on happiness and quality of life.  This has become an important part of my research agenda. I have also used the research materials to teach a course on “The Pursuit of Happiness” at the College of Alice and Peter Tan.

My current home is at…

The College of Alice and Peter Tan or CAPT for short, a residential college – think halls of residence plus credit-bearing academic courses – at University Town.

I moved into the College as a Residential Fellow in August 2012. Overnight, I became “Mom” to over a hundred students in my “neighbourhood”. There are five residential fellows taking care of about 500 to 600 students at CAPT. My life over the last four years has been hectic to say the least (including late night visits to NUH A&E and a fire alarm scare in the middle of a torrential downpour at 2am!) but it has also been fulfilling in many ways.

Outside of work, I meet up as often as I can with my extended family, friends and some former students. I try to make time for walks, visits to museums, arts performances, civil society events and shopping (which is both therapy and consumer research!)

My husband is also an academic whose schedule is even busier than mine but he is very supportive of what I do. We are intellectual sparring partners, and discuss/argue about almost anything and everything!  We have a lunch date every Monday to start the week together. I try to accompany him on his trips when I can fit them into my teaching schedule and when he is travelling to a destination I want to visit.

siok and hubby

Paul and Siok Tambyah at a conference reception in Geneva, Switzerland (Summer 2015)

The dream job…

I have shared elsewhere that being an academic has helped me to realise some of my childhood dreams of being an actress, entrepreneur, teacher or writer. It is really one of the most amazing “jobs” in the world!

If I ever get bored with being an academic, I would like to do something that helps people in stressful situations because I think I am a relatively organised person who can be counted on to get things done. I was a wedding planner for several of my friends before people started getting paid for doing it. I am also fond of organising stuff and de-cluttering and have dreamed about doing an internship with a professional organiser!

If I received a large grant to pursue an interest…

I would be hard put to decide what to do because of my diverse interests!  I had thought about living in Sicily for a period of time. My dissertation research was about consumption and ethnicity as social branding. Many of the respondents I interviewed were Italian-Americans whose ancestors came from Palermo, Sicily. I was fascinated by their stories about the history and culture of their homeland.

For the immediate future, the pragmatic side of me would probably use the money to buy time and opportunities to do more reading and research on education and healthcare (including mental wellness). These are two topics that often come up while my husband and I are interacting with people in our social and professional circles, which we feel have a significant influence on our sense of wellbeing and happiness.  As you can probably tell by now, happiness is the recurring theme in many of the ideas and projects I am interested in.

Thank you, Prof Tambyah, for sharing a slice of your life with us. We take this opportunity to congratulate her on her recent promotion to Associate Professor of Marketing.

Prof Tambyah has also given many interviews and talks – here are several you can check out:

“Choosing Happiness”, as published in SMA (Singapore Medical Association) News, Vol 48 No,5, May 2016 Issue –

“Tracking the changes in values for Singaporeans” at the 2012 Advertising and Consumer Psychology Conference, co-organised by the Institute on Asian and Consumer Insight and Society for Consumer Psychology, Dec 2012

Interview on VoiceTODAY on “A Singapore National Happiness Index”, published on Oct 4, 2013

“The Wellbeing of 3rd Agers” at the1st Positive Ageing Conference on 30 September 2015