Greater happiness raises expectations

Updated: 2012-10-09 08:08

By Wang Yiqing (China Daily)

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For most people, it is difficult to answer the question, "Are you happy?", especially when facing a video camera or journalist's microphone. Happiness is a hard-to-define subjective feeling with the criteria differing from person to person. Even an unhappy interviewee will feel ashamed or reluctant to air his/her true feelings in public or on camera.

Not surprisingly, many people have challenged the results of China Central Television's serial interviews about people's sense of happiness. The conclusion that most Chinese people are happy just because they said so in front of the camera is far from convincing. In this regard, private questionnaires based on a series of key happiness-related index could elicit more reliable response than TV interviews from the public.

But even if the CCTV survey was not scientific, we cannot deny that an increasing number of people have reason to feel happy today. The CCTV survey, to some extent, reflects social development and the improvement in people's livelihoods.

Surveys on people's sense of happiness are not uncommon in the country. In 2010 a research group of the Financial and Economic Affairs Committee of the National People's Congress released the results of a survey on urban residents' sense of happiness, which showed 74.2 percent of the 4,800 respondents in 24 cities felt "comparatively happy" or "very happy".

The Chinese Cities' 2011 Competition Power Blue Paper of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, which covered 294 cities, also showed an average score of 76.06 out of 100 in term of the residents' sense of happiness. The survey showed people's sense of happiness has gradually increased over the past decade: the score for 2001, 2005, 2009 and 2010 is 69.40, 70.52, 73.55 and 76.06.

To a large extent, the trend of an increasing number of Chinese residents feeling happy is the result of China's rapid economic growth. Many studies have shown that rising incomes are related to lower-income people's sense of happiness. But when people's incomes increase to a comparatively high level, such positive correlation may not necessarily be obvious. This reflects the situation of a majority of Chinese residents.

Since China is a developing country with a comparatively low economic development level, many people accord priority to improving their living standard. Rapid economic growth provides a sharp momentum to such improvement. The increase in many people's sense of happiness in recent years can generally be attributed to improvements in family income, social welfare and public services.

Figures prove beyond doubt - even if we ignore the CCTV serial interviews - that a majority of Chinese people today live a much better life.

Then why has the "happiness" survey result evoked such a reaction among the public? Nobody, not even the very rich, leads a perfect life. Many of those who say they are unhappy seem to ignore the better side of life. They have a tendency to see a glass as "half empty" rather than "half full".

But there are many real and crucial problems that influence people's happiness. Based on the average rural household income of 2,300 yuan ($364) per capita a year in 2011, about 128 million people still live in poverty in China. Before talking about these people's "happiness", we should first take measures to lift them out of poverty.

What haunts ordinary Chinese people are issues such as rising housing prices, the cost of medical treatment, social security and pollution.

Happiness is a relative concept, which has something to do with expectations. When some people say they are unhappy, it doesn't necessarily mean their life or livelihood has worsened. Instead, it could mean that they have higher expectations from life.

Economics Nobel Prize winner Paul Samuelson said happiness equals utility divided by desire, according to which an increasing desire may reduce a person's sense of happiness. As China develops rapidly, people's expectations of and demands for a better life, materially and spiritually, also increase. On the road to a well-off society, people could be more worried about public administration, social fairness and justice besides improvements on the material front. Even though people's lives have improved, they still want more. The government should consider these factors to improve people's life further.

People may have different views on happiness. But it's good to see that people's sense of happiness has become a hot topic in the media. This shows that authorities at all levels are paying more attention to people's material and spiritual needs, instead of blindly pursuing economic growth.

In the CASS survey, people's confidence about their life and social development ranked highest among the six key indicators that influence people's sense of happiness. The government should pay attention to these six indicators to make people more happy.

The author is a writer with China Daily

(China Daily 10/09/2012 page9)