Blessed are those who are happy
Updated: 2012-10-20 01:43
By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)
If someone thrusts a microphone under your nose and ask you "Are you happy?" What would you say?
Thousands of people across China have had that peculiar encounter and the responses are more hilarious than predictable.
For one thing, there are interviewees who did not even get the question. As Chinese is a language full of homonyms, quite a few respondents mistook the question to be, "Is your surname Fu?" (Happiness is xingfu in the Chinese language and xing (幸) is pronounced the same as 姓, or surname.) So, one replied: "My last name is Zeng." It turned into a joke that fell on the reporter rather than the target of the camera.
China Central Television, the country's national TV network, is conducting an ongoing survey nationwide, starting from late September, on the level of satisfaction among ordinary people. You have to give it credit for broadcasting snippets that normally belong to outtakes, thus taking on an air of off-the-cuff realism.
For those inured to cut-and-dried quotes, the candid camera moments are a little dizzying. It does not help when the reporters do not precede the question with small talk.
One revelation from the television footage is how private this question can be. Many were at pains to evade it, with some simply turning away in embarrassment.
It dawned on me that happiness — or the lack of it — is not something everyone wants to share with the rest of the world. The facial expressions of some of the respondents who kept silent once they clearly heard the question remind me of the awkwardness that often accompanies a sociological probe into someone's sex life.
There are some who blurt out, "I'm happy!" But strangely, the exaggeration they display often imbues their words with a palpable overtone of sarcasm. It is rare to see a Chinese who is not on a drinking binge to show the joy of life in such a manner. It is like bad acting.
The most credible answers tend to be a follow-up to a brief discussion of the definition of "happiness". Mo Yan, the new Nobel laureate for literature, perhaps gave the best answer when he was thrown the de rigeur question.
"I don't know," he said, going on to define happiness as "not thinking of anything, being healthy and free from any pressure. I have so much pressure and worry right now. How can I be happy? But if I say I'm not happy, people will say I'm pretentious."
Obviously, the writer of Red Sorghum has hit the bull's eye by separating excitement or gladness, which is momentary, from the higher and more permanent state of contentment.
That sentiment is shared by several interviewees who emphasized "no pressure" as a prerequisite for seventh heaven.
Not surprisingly, many people cite making money as their goal of happiness. Whether it's an individual or a village, when you're living in abject poverty, the prospect of being able to feed and clothe yourself and your family is absolutely alluring as to amount to paradise. This is not something to be ashamed of. When survival is a problem, happiness can be fleeting at best.
China has left behind the age of subsistence. But we have carried over the habit of associating happiness with wealth accumulation. When we had to save months to buy a bicycle, we thought the two-wheeled vehicle would make us happy; now that we ride in our own cars, we become gloomier when flashier and more expensive vehicles pass us by, whose drivers seem to exude confidence.
Thirty years ago, many of us lived in cramped dormitories, sharing bunk beds with roommates. How we longed to have our own apartments. But who'd think 100 square meters would look so squeezed after we visited that 300-square-meter model house.
Theoretically, a long period of beatitude could be possible with basic living standards and seclusion from the go-go world. A few years ago, a more scientific survey — not random chatter from the press — was mocked when it revealed higher rural satisfaction with life as it was. While rural residents in China earn far less on average than urbanites, it is quite plausible they find living easier, especially if they do not have access to television shows that flaunt the lifestyle of the rich and famous.
Another demographic high on the happiness meter, I suspect, is the country's senior citizens — provided one is not afflicted with chronic illnesses or the children show enough filial obedience. Just walk around the country's parks, and you'll see the cheerful faces of the retired singing, dancing, doing tai chi or playing chess. If a reporter queries them about happiness, they'll gush for an hour, and it's all heartfelt.
While the government has a responsibility to lift people out of poverty, it can do little, other than stimulate the economy and incorporate fairness into its policies, to inject a dose of long-lasting joy into those clamoring for more worldly goods. It is not the amount of wealth, but rather, the gap between where you are now and where you want to be, that determines your level of happiness, and that gap is shifting all the time.
I would say, of all the demographics in the country, the group most unhappy would be the one in close proximity with affluence yet unable to grab it. A migrant worker who toils with an army of others like him may use a point of reference very different from another migrant worker who runs errands for the superrich. The former will easily find people less lucky than he or she is, and the latter will probably be torn between bouts of pride and self-contempt.
Likewise, college graduates who fail to land decent jobs, or any jobs, are in a place where their expectation far exceeds reality even though, in material terms, they could be in a better condition than someone on an assembly line. A Peking University graduate was made miserable by his parents who chided him that he should be a mayor or a governor, although he is bringing home 9,000 yuan ($1,430) in monthly salary.
Which brings us to the crucial lever of power. Power, obviously, is an aphrodisiac that not only intoxicates but gratifies. When I was a kid, a relative brought me a fortune-telling book, from which we calculated the "fortune" of everyone we knew from a score based on one's birthday and birth time. Pointing to the highest possible score and its correlating great fortune, he said, "That's the chairman, or the emperor in the old times." "What about the second highest?" I asked. "Oh, that's the prime minister and he's the second happiest person," he replied.
Nowadays, it's almost preposterous to think politicians can be happy. If self-importance corresponds with happiness, we can do away with a survey and simply assign scores by their official rankings.
In recent years, a few of China's moneyed have resorted to tradition and religion for that elusive peace of mind many call happiness. They withdraw from dealing and wheeling, take up calligraphy or tea ceremonies, or even go into seclusion a la Taoist recluses. In a sense, they have reversed the ratio of material and spiritual pursuits to achieve that floating-on-air feeling.
As a country, we are showing more anxiety than felicity. If examined another way, it is not a bad thing. It means we are not satisfied with the status quo and strive for something better. A whole population that consists of meditative monks would turn a country into stagnant water. What we need is to turn a 100-meter dash into a sprightly walk with rest stops and moments to enjoy the scenery.
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