Cities can only be made more livable

Updated: 2012-11-28 08:00

By Zhu Yuan (China Daily)

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Cities can only be made more livable

If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap; if you want happiness for a day, go fishing; if you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune; if you want happiness for a lifetime, help someone else. This is what happiness is all about, at least for some. This is also what I want to say to the reporters from China Central Television, who kept asking people the question: "Are you happy?"

"I don't know" is the initial answer Nobel literature laureate Mo Yan gave to this question. This is a simple but philosophical one. Being happy is theoretically opposite to being unhappy. But in reality not being unhappy does not necessarily mean being happy. Most of the time I feel neither happy nor unhappy.

Of course, the CCTV anchor must have wanted Mo Yan to say that he was extremely happy after winning the Nobel Prize in literature. But she forgot that for a novelist who has dedicated himself to his writing without ever bothering about the money his writing would bring him, the fortune that came with the prize would not give him greater happiness than the recognition of his status as a great master of literature. Perhaps what Mo Yan felt was far beyond what the word "happy" can express.

Another possibility is that although he might have felt extremely happy the moment he got the news, the disruption to his writing and even his normal life caused by the media interest has greatly compromised his feeling of happiness.

The reality is that people are neither happy nor unhappy most of the time. Even wealthy people do not always feel happy and even the happiest-go-lucky person will feel unhappy sometimes.

When happiness becomes such a hot topic, there must be something that prevents people from being happy. An increasing number of Chinese cities have put forward the goal of building their cities into a happy city. How can they do that? Even if a city government issues cash to citizens once in a while, they will feel happy only at the moment they receive the money. It is impossible for a city to make its citizens happy all the time.

What these cities need to do is to reduce the things that make people unhappy.

For example, if a city's roads are dug up frequently and it is difficult for people to travel and the streets are full of dust, most people will undoubtedly feel unhappy. If reports of food safety hazards make people worry about food, how can they feel happy? If the air is heavily polluted and people rarely see a clear sky all year round, it will be impossible for them to be happy. If most city streets are messy and dirty, it seems unlikely that people will be happy. If you're not properly received or treated when you're trying to get something done at a government department, will you feel happy?

So instead of asking people the question: "Are you happy?" people should be asked what are the major factors that make them unhappy. Then what the city authorities need to do is to try to reduce these, so that there are fewer things that cause unhappiness in daily life.

Although happiness is always described as the goal people are pursuing in life, people are usually neither happy nor unhappy most of the time. In other words, the fewer factors there are that make people unhappy the less unhappy they will be.

In this sense, "building a happy city" is anything but a concrete promise since the chances of reducing the degree of people's unhappiness by doing a few things is greater than the chances of making them happy.

City governments should set the goal of making their cities more livable, rather than happy.

The author is a senior writer with China Daily.

(China Daily 11/28/2012 page8)