Money vs. Happiness in China

One piece of news now much in circulation is the “slowdown” in GDP growth for the (mainland) Chinese economy. “Slowdown” in quotes, because statistics still showed an annualized 9.6% rate of third-quarter growth (year-on-year) – still impressive, if a bit less than the 10.3% y/y growth recorded for QII. This news-item’s appeal to those reporting it is clear, as it enables them to combine that “slowdown” irony with an underlying concern that it might turn out to be a serious matter after all, if most of the rest of the world is mired in recession and waiting on eventual Chinese demand to pull it out.

Typically, though, most news outlets fail to carry the story through to its deeper layer of meaning, in this case the fact that such a slowing of economic growth is actually a good thing and precisely what the Chinese authorities hope to achieve. For a more profound level of sophistication such as that one has to resort to publications such as the New York Times to read how, in fact, Beijing is concerned about runaway inflation and maybe even a property-price crash, so that if anything they were disappointed not in the slackening of third-quarter growth but rather the smallish magnitude of that slackening, and in fact recently went so far as to raise interest rates to gain more of precisely that result. (For the ultimate in detailed analysis of this predicament, from a Chinese professor at Peking [sic] University no less, the blog Naked Capitalism graciously provides us with this.)

Then there is an even deeper treatment of the phenomenon, brought to us today in the FT Deutschland: The Chinese cannot grab hold of their happiness. Sure, for decades now the Chinese economy has consistently shown explosive growth, is this piece’s message (written – note well! – by a journalist named Luo Xu), but it seems clear that this has failed to make the Chinese any happier.

Since he writes for the FTD, Luo is naturally far too intelligent to base such a contention merely upon any set of anecdotal impressions – from a population in excess of 1.3 billion! – that he and his acquaintances may foster. No, he has academic reports to cite:

  • The Erasmus University study, using a “People’s Happiness Index” on a 1 (most unhappy) to 10 (most happy) scale, that returns 6.64 in 1990, 7.08 in 1995, but then 6.60 in 2001. (Nothing more recent mentioned);
  • The University of Michigan study of 2009, which doesn’t provide numbers but merely concludes that yes, the Chinese are on the whole unhappier now (i.e. 2009) than they were ten years before;
  • The study published just last August at the Conference for Positive Psychology that took place in China, according to which 90% of respondents to a survey described themselves as lonely, 46.9% were dissatisfied with their lives and 19.1% were very dissatisfied.

It seems, then, that the Chinese have finally bumped up against the folk-wisdom that money does not (always) make you happy. But why exactly is that? And what, if anything, can be done about it? Remember, though, that this is but an article in a business newspaper and not the detailed psychological study – or, better, Nobel Prize-winning novel – that would be a more-appropriate means for addressing this dilemma. Mr. Luo is game to do the best he can to explain, though, and that turns out to be the following summary of seven factors behind this mysterious society-wide gloom, as compiled from the studies already-cited and others:

  • Competition: The old, familiar comparative motive: you might be sitting happy, but that can swiftly change once your neighbor buys a fancy car which you don’t have.
  • Lack of ideals: That is, when people discover that money is not enough to give life a true purpose.
  • Negative thinking: Looking on the cloudy side, not the sunny side, of life.
  • Fading altruism: Apparently, helping other people is one key to happiness, but modern Chinese society is steadily forgetting this.
  • Dissatisfaction: With what one already has, that is. Luo cites a Chinese proverb – “The satisfied man is usually happy” – and observes that there are ever-fewer truly satisfied Chinese left, because of what they see is available if they just had more money, because of what they see their neighbors have, etc.
  • Distrust: People are increasingly estranged from each other.
  • Worry: Also known as stress, resulting from a host of new concerns originating from work, children, old-age provision, and the like.

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