Institutions as enablers of wellbeing: The Singapore Prison case study


  • John F. Helliwell University of British Columbia


fprisons, subjective wellbeing, subjective well-being, social capital, institutional reforms, quality of life, recidivism, community engagement, quality of government, felicitators


Wellbeing research has long found a correlation between the subjective wellbeing of individuals and the quality of their private and public institutions. But which way do the causal arrows point, and what can be done to improve institutions? Only real-life experiments can answer these two questions convincingly. Prisons are frequently considered schools for criminals rather than creators of wellbeing. Thus they provide a tough test for institutional changes intended to improve wellbeing. Since 1998 the Singapore Prison Service has converted its prisons into schools for life, thereby improving the lives of inmates, prison staff and the community at large. In so doing, the Prison Service exemplified five key lessons from subjective wellbeing research: the importance of social context, benevolence, trust, building positive outcomes, and top-to-bottom engagement in a shared purpose. By any measure, the results have been impressive, ranging from a one-third drop in recidivism to improved staff morale and better social connections between prisons and the rest of society.


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Author Biography

John F. Helliwell, University of British Columbia

Co-director of Social Interactions, Identity and Well-Being Program of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, and

Department of Economics, UBC