Money alone can't make people happy
Updated: 2012-11-14 08:17
By Patrick Mattimore (China Daily)
The General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Hu Jintao's address to the 18th CPC National Congress on Nov 8 stressed the importance of improving people's livelihood. He set a goal to build a xiaokang (moderately well-off) society by 2020, when the country's GDP and people's income would be double that of 2010.
The fundamental question is whether a richer nation will also be a happier nation?
The answer is: "Maybe".
It is, therefore, good that some local governments recently introduced a "happiness index" to evaluate government performance. The term "gross national happiness" (GNH) was coined by Bhutan's fourth "Dragon King" 40 years ago. GNH measures the quality of life or social progress in a more holistic and psychological way than the economic indicator, GDP.
The difficulty with producing a happiness ranking for a country is that, unlike GDP which can be objectively measured, GNH is largely subjective, dependent on the vagaries of individuals at given moments in time.
Recently, China Central Television telecast a series of surveys on China's GNH, which sparked a heated debate because most interviewees said they were happy and presented a picture in sharp contrast to online complaints.
Unquestionably, Chinese people report greater economic satisfaction with their lives. According to a Pew face-to-face study covering 3,177 people between March 18 and April 15, 70 percent of the respondents said they were better off financially now than they were five years ago. A remarkable 92 percent of Chinese said their standard of living was better than their parents' at a similar age.
A 2010 Reuters-Ipsos poll of people in 23 countries and regions found that more than two-thirds of Chinese surveyed believed that "money is the best sign of a person's success".
Along with South Korea, the percentage of people in China equating success with money was higher than any of the other countries, and more than twice as high as in the US.
In The Pursuit of Happiness psychologist David Myers points out the surprising fact that in countries where nearly everyone can afford life's necessities, increasing affluence matters surprisingly little in terms of personal satisfaction.
The correlation between income and happiness is "surprisingly weak", as University of Michigan researcher Ronald Inglehart observed in one study covering 170,000 people in 16 countries. Once we have acquired life's necessities, more money provides diminishing returns.
Myers suggests that though we love our air-conditioners, camera cell phones, text messaging, Internet search engines and iPods, we are no happier than were our grandparents growing up without any of those things.
Gallup surveys reveal that in the decade after 1994, while telephones and television sets went from being uncommon to commonplace among households in China, satisfaction with life actually declined slightly.
If an improved economy is not necessarily our ticket to more satisfaction, what is?
Researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has found that what people enjoy most is being engrossed in a mindful challenge. Csikszentmihalyi calls it the optimal state flow, in which we become so absorbed in an activity that we lose consciousness of self and time. Thus, work and leisure that require total concentration of our skills promote happiness.
Myers writes: "We humans are social animals. We have a deep 'need to belong'. We, therefore, benefit from having loving companions through the journey of life, from having people with whom we can share our suffering and sorrow and our good fortune and celebration."
These findings are linked with others which indicate that happy people tend to have energy that is bred by regular aerobic exercise, sufficient renewing sleep and positive attitudes such as a sense of gratitude for one's health, friends and family.
Two years ago, Premier Wen Jiabao suggested to netizens in an online chat that the government must ensure an equitable distribution of social wealth. Wen said: "Distributing the cake of social wealth is a matter of being just and fair to everybody."
It is also equally true that people have a responsibility to straighten out their priorities. We can work to expand our personal wealth without biting off more than we can chew. Overindulgence leaves some people without anything and it also makes the gluttons sick. Money has a rightful place in our lives, not as a marker of our value or success, but as a tool to help enrich all our lives.
So, while the government should certainly work to help ensure an adequate standard of living for all to provide a baseline for an enjoyable life, it is imperative to remember that a nation's happiness ultimately depends on more than just material wealth.
The author teaches psychology at TOPU in Beijing and is an adjunct professor of law in the Temple University/Tsinghua University LLM program.
(China Daily 11/14/2012 page10)