China checks its own mood
In general, do you feel happy?
If you had a second chance in life, would you rather be an honest farmer, a hard-working laborer, a worry-free civil servant, a respected manager, a designer, an office clerk, a teacher, a homemaker, or stay in your current profession?
What would make you happier?
It seems almost gratuitous to be posing such questions in a country where income levels have increased fivefold in half a generation. But the Chinese are discovering one of life’s greatest lessons: that money doesn’t necessarily buy you happiness. And increasingly, they are asking themselves and each other not “Did you eat today?"-- a traditional greeting in China -- but “Are you happy?”
The concept of happiness, xingfu, is somewhat alien here, there being no equivalent of Thomas Jefferson, credited with enshrining “the pursuit of happiness” at the same level as life and liberty in the Declaration of Independence. (An exception is one verse of the revolutionary ballad “The East is Red,” which states that “Chairman Mao seeks happiness for his people.”)
But suddenly, happiness is on the tip of every Chinese politician’s tongue. “Everything we do is aimed at letting people live more happily and with more dignity,” Premier Wen Jiabao declared in his New Year’s address to the nation. During the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in March, it came up so often that the official New China News Agency proclaimed, “No doubt, ‘happiness’ is the keyword for the two sessions.”
At the local level, municipal governments are drawing up happiness indexes and competing with one another for the title of “China’s happiest city.”
“It even sounds a little weird in Chinese to ask, ‘Are you happy?’ but now there is so much talk about happiness, it’s almost become a cliche,” said Christopher K. Hsee, a Chinese-born University of Chicago professor who is credited with bringing happiness studies to China.
Why is the Chinese government suddenly jumping on the happiness bandwagon? Cynics might argue that officials are looking for an alternate measure of success for that inevitable point when economic growth plateaus. But Hsee believes the concept of happiness is a natural corollary of the Communist Party’s propaganda about creating a “harmonious society.”
“Happiness is a subject that is consistent with harmony,” Hsee said.
Nearly a dozen different polls, some commissioned by government agencies, have recently tried to gauge the happiness of the Chinese people. The answers aren’t always what the leadership is looking for.
In advance of the National People’s Congress, a state-owned information portal, China.com.cn, polled 1,350 people and discovered that only 6% listed themselves as “very happy,” as opposed to 48% who were distinctly “not happy.” (The rest were “so-so” or “unsure.”) A news story reporting the unhappy results in the English-language China Daily was promptly zapped from the Internet.
The results of another poll must have been even more alarming to the powers that be. Gallup last month ranked China 92nd out of 124 countries in a poll in which people assessed their own “well-being.” Only 12% of Chinese described themselves as “thriving.” That put China roughly on par with Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, countries where the discontent bubbled up in the form of popular uprisings. Denmark led the pack with 72% of people reporting that they were thriving, while the United States came in at No. 12, with 59%.
Many countries, including Britain and France, are considering “happiness indexes” as a supplement to more traditional measures of success, but there is perhaps greater urgency in China because of the vertigo-inducing nature of change. And for scholars of what makes people happy -- “hedonomics,” as it’s known in academia -- China is the perfect laboratory for studying some of the most vexing questions in the field.
Are people happier when everybody is equally poor (more or less the scenario in China for much of the late 20th century)? When people get richer, but some much more so than others, do the income disparities create unhappiness?
The research now underway in China builds on what is called the Easterlin Paradox, named for the economist who in the 1970s wrote that once people get enough money to meet their basic needs, higher incomes don’t necessarily lead to more happiness.
Much of the academic research is being done in Shanghai at Jiaotong University’s Antai College of Economics and Management. Using surveys, experiments involving volunteers and computer simulations, researchers there are studying the effect of rapid economic and social change on happiness levels.
Swift change, even positive change, can breed discontent. “People respond dramatically to change, good or bad. In our studies of happiness, we find that people can’t get used to the new situation,” said Wang Fanghua, a professor who is leading the research.
Another phenomenon that is potentially worrisome for the Chinese: When people get richer, they quickly adjust to the new reality, taking for granted what is behind them and looking with envy at those who are ahead.
“What is clear is that satisfaction with money is relative. If somebody got a higher salary this year than last, he might not be happy,” Wang said. “But if his income is better than his friends’, then he will be happy.”
The rub for the Chinese is also that aspirations often outpace reality.
“In a time of rising expectations, people are often unhappy because they have higher expectations about what they need. It is obvious from the surveys that social development is lagging behind the economy,” said Zhang Hui, who is in charge of the happiness studies at Beijing-based Horizon Research Consultancy Group, one of China’s leading pollsters. Separate polls conducted by the agency show a steady slide in both happiness and quality of life since 2005.
Rising commodity and real estate prices were major causes of dissatisfaction. Many of those surveyed blamed corruption and an unfair social system for their hardships.
As far as Chinese authorities are concerned, if the nation cannot be reformed to create a happier society, individuals must make themselves happier.
The Beijing municipality announced last month that colleges would soon be adding courses in how to handle pressure, relations and mental health. The courses will be optional at first, but could become mandatory.
Although happiness is not yet on the bestseller list in China (“Self-help books in China only look at how to get rich,” Zhang said), interest is growing. Online lectures by the happiness guru Tal Ben-Shahar are also popular.
Kevin Liu, a 32-year-old psychology graduate who runs a consulting firm, says there are a number of start-up companies training people in the art of happiness.
“This kind of service has just emerged in China in the past five years,” said Liu, whose company works with corporate employees. “We think through training you can raise your ability to be happy.”
The happiness surveys show great disparities in China. Among the findings: Northerners are happier than southerners. Urban residents are happier than rural ones, but not by as large a margin as people would expect given that getting off the farm is a badge of success in China.
Within the occupations, civil servants are happiest, enjoying the security of a steady paycheck rather than the stress of entrepreneurship. Second as far as happiness are real estate brokers. Men are happiest at the age of 41. Women are happiest at 28. The most unhappy group of people are women ages 40 through 44.
Zhang, who at 40 would seem to have an enviable life, married to an academic, with an 11-year-old son, an apartment and a car, offers herself as an example.
“With women my age, their parents are getting old; their children are starting puberty, and since we mostly have only one child, there is so much pressure to provide a good education. Then so many Chinese women work and they have to worry about lagging behind,” Zhang said. “I think when I look at my own happiness, it’s maybe 85 out of 100 points. I think I can learn to do better.”
Tommy Yang and Nicole Liu of The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.