The many factors of happiness in China

BEIJING - If you are expecting widespread anger and despair symptomatic of those caught in fast, messy social change, here is a surprise. Ask around and most Chinese people are likely to say they're happy with their lives.

A recent popular TV show, Are You Happy?, produced by the national broadcast network, interviewed more than 3,500 people, from garbage collectors to laborers to Mo Yan, the Chinese winner of Nobel Prize in Literature.

The producers claimed more than 90 per cent of the respondents said they were "happy", although only a very small percentage of the interviews were telecast.

The straw poll results might sound too good to be true. But the official survey conducted in 2010 across 24 Chinese cities had concluded that 75 per cent of Chinese urban residents felt either "very happy" or "fairly happy", with the elderly people happier than the young, women happier than men and public servants happier than the rest.

Even the current economic slowdown doesn't seem to have dampened people's spirits. Citing international survey results, the London-based Financial Times reported recently that 83 per cent of Chinese were satisfied with their country's economic situation, and the same percentage of Chinese believed the next generation would have a better life, compared with only about 20 per cent of Europeans and Americans who thought so.

What has made Chinese feel so happy? The Chinese researchers in the national survey concluded that since Chinese salaries rose from a low base, increasing incomes were essential to happiness as people were found to feel happier when they made more money.

Similarly, the Financial Times report attributed the "sanguine attitude" of Chinese to average incomes that have more than tripled over the past decade, and predicted optimism would prevail over grievances as long as economic growth continues.

Then what does this mean in terms of helping millions of urban Chinese who have described themselves as "not very happy" or "unhappy"?

For many living in poverty, it's probably true that happiness increases when income increases. But for others, there is more than money that makes them happy. For example, the Chinese researchers found that since people compare themselves with others, the way wealth is distributed also affects their happiness.

Richard Easterlin, an American professor of economics known for his theory that happiness at a national level does not increase with wealth once basic needs are fulfilled, recently claimed there is no evidence to suggest that Chinese are any happier.

Worse, he said, they are less satisfied than they were in 1990 because of concerns over matters such as finding and holding a job, availability of reliable and affordable healthcare, and social provisions for children and elderly people.

While praising the Chinese government for taking steps "to broaden and improve unemployment and pension benefits, as well as to upgrade the healthcare system", Easterlin warned that the Chinese safety net remains in need of substantial repair.

The TV show, Are You Happy?, has provided us vivid cases as to what money can and cannot do for people's happiness. Among the most controversial interviews was the one with a 73-year-old man who was collecting used plastic bottles on a street.

When dogged with the question whether he was happy, he kept saying things like his earning was 0.1 yuan from each bottle recycled and his meager government subsidy was 650 yuan (S$127) a month until he lost his patience and burst out: "I'm deaf."

Then came Mo Yan, who looked philosophical when asked on national television if he was happy after winning the $1.2-million Nobel Prize in Literature. "Happiness means a healthy body and a total absence of mental burden, but now I'm under high pressure and bothered by worries. Can I be happy?" he said.

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