China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Friday, February 10, 2006

As we get wealthier, do we get happier ?

China Daily 2006-02-10 05:34

Since life for most is no longer a daily struggle for basic necessities to meet physical needs, topics of public discourse are beginning to touch on aspects of life we have seldom addressed before.

You may have noticed the Chinese press giving recent attention to literature that addresses happiness.

Most, if not all, Chinese are financially better off thanks to 28 years of reform and opening up. But are we any happier?

Various surveys and rankings attempt to answer this question. The municipal government of Beijing even unveiled a plan last month to incorporate residents' levels of satisfaction as an important indicator of societal harmony.

The limelight on subjective well-being adds a precious human touch to our pursuit of development.

Though sociologists have presented varying percentages based on different criteria, their answers tend to find we are generally happier, and the number of optimists rises each year.

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' 2006 Blue Book on social progress says 70 per cent of rural and urban respondents surveyed in 2005 reported a feeling of happiness and were optimistic about their futures.

But each survey reveals a worrisome fact that a sizable portion, 10 per cent at the lowest, of respondents were not content with their lives or not hopeful about the future.

We cannot be content with the fact that at least 130 million of our countrymen are not happy.

When discussing reasons for discontent, the law of diminishing utility is relevant. Following this logic, insatiable desires are to blame.

It makes sense: When you have everything you need for a decent life, and more of the things you want, you may want more.

But for the majority of Chinese citizens, it is not about diminishing utility.

Though the official number of those in abject poverty is small, many more are yet to rise above the difficult fight for subsistence.

Although a sense of happiness remains a luxury for many of our compatriots because of poverty, we agree financial well-being is not the sole determinant of happiness.

For most of us, except the extremely rich and naturally born optimists, there simply are too many variables that may kill the feeling of happiness.

These include, but are not limited to, rising housing prices, tight and instable job market, back-breaking schooling expenses and medical bills.

The most common one, however, is a low sense of security.

An eye-catching characteristic of our economy is its high savings rate, at 46 per cent now.

Cultural factors aside, as People's Bank of China President Zhou Xiaochuan told the World Economic Forum, the country's incomplete social security system is a major reason for the public's reluctance to spend.

Explaining the rise in savings and drop in spending in their city, Beijing municipal statisticians pointed to unfavourable expectations in the low- and middle-income group there was too much uncertainty regarding employment, income, housing, medical situations, and education.

How can you feel happy when you always have to brace yourself for the unexpected?

It may be beyond the government's reach, not to mention obligation, to guarantee higher income for every citizen.

But it does have a burden to create an environment where all citizens can feel a reasonable level of security.

There was an inclusive "safety network" when the government encouraged officials to leave public offices in 1980s in attempts to downsize public service. The idea was to offer officials secure pay and benefits so they would not have to worry about guarantees after their departure from positions of power.

It is time the government displayed similar creativity and resolve to address a much larger sense of uncertainty.

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