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China checks its own mood

Happiness becomes a favorite topic among politicians. But polls show that citizens aren't so cheery.

May 16, 2011|Barbara Demick

SHANGHAI — 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.

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