27th May 2024 – (Hong Kong) The gleaming skyscrapers and bustling streets of Hong Kong project an image of a city that has it all figured out – a well-oiled machine of finance, trade, and innovation. But beneath this veneer of success lies a society grappling with the dark side of its own ambition. From high-flying executives to grassroots workers, the pressure to keep up with the city’s relentless pace is taking a heavy toll on mental health and well-being.

At the heart of the problem is Hong Kong’s deeply ingrained culture of success, where one’s worth is often measured by their career achievements, financial status, and social standing. This cutthroat environment breeds intense competition and leaves little room for those who don’t fit the mould of the ideal high-achiever.

The phenomenon of relative deprivation, where individuals feel disadvantaged compared to their peers, is particularly acute in Hong Kong’s stratified society. Even those who are objectively well-off by global standards can feel like they are falling behind when surrounded by the trappings of extreme wealth. It’s a city where schoolchildren compare the brands of their designer backpacks and where young professionals feel pressure to flaunt the latest status symbols.

This constant sense of inadequacy is compounded by the big-fish-little-pond effect, a psychological phenomenon where equally capable individuals can have lower self-esteem when surrounded by high achievers. In Hong Kong’s elite circles, being merely above average is often seen as not good enough. The city’s top schools and employers have their pick of the best and brightest, leaving even highly competent individuals feeling like small fish in an ocean of overachievers.

The result is a pressure-cooker environment that is taking a serious toll on mental health. Studies have shown alarmingly high rates of depression, anxiety and stress among Hong Kongers across the socioeconomic spectrum. Long work hours, limited leisure time and the high cost of living add to the burden. Even children are not spared, with the city’s pressure-packed education system fueling an epidemic of youth depression and suicide.

For Hong Kong’s elite, the pressure to maintain an image of effortless success can make it difficult to seek help. In a city that prizes strength and resilience, admitting to mental health struggles can be seen as a sign of weakness. Many suffer in silence, self-medicating with alcohol or burning themselves out in pursuit of an ever-receding finish line.

But it’s not just the high-flyers who are feeling the strain. For Hong Kong’s working class and grassroots communities, the pressure takes on a different but no less damaging form. With limited prospects for upward mobility, many find themselves stuck in low-paying jobs with long hours and little job security. The city’s skyrocketing cost of living and housing prices have put a decent standard of living out of reach for many, fueling feelings of hopelessness and resentment.

This toxic brew of relative deprivation and big-fish-little-pond syndrome is not just a mental health crisis – it’s a threat to the very fabric of Hong Kong society. When large swaths of the population feel left behind and unable to keep up, it breeds social unrest and political instability. The city’s recent protests and upheavals are in part a manifestation of these deep-seated frustrations.

So what can be done? Addressing these issues will require a fundamental shift in Hong Kong’s success-obsessed culture. It means redefining what it means to lead a good life and valuing well-being and balance over relentless achievement. It means investing in mental health resources and destigmatizing seeking help. And it means tackling the systemic inequalities that fuel feelings of deprivation and resentment.

However, perhaps most importantly, it means cultivating a sense of empathy and understanding for the struggles of others. In a city where everyone feels the pressure to put their best face forward, a little compassion can go a long way. By recognising that everyone is fighting their own battles, Hong Kongers can start to build a society that lifts up the struggling instead of grinding them down. In the end, true success should be measured not just by the heights one reaches, but by the well-being of the community as a whole.