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May 20, 2011

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The happiness conundrum

SHANGHAI residents are debating what happiness means after the city ranked surprisingly low in a happiness index survey among Chinese cities. Experts say there is no connection to wealth and that true happiness comes from within, writes Yao Minji.

A poor farmer works and lives happily until the day he goes into town and sees a millionaire, who makes far more money and leads a luxurious lifestyle. The farmer becomes unhappy at this moment. Is it true that he once owned happiness before entering the town? Is it better if he never visits the town?

Dr Peng Kaiping says no to the question because "that happiness he felt before didn't and couldn't last." Peng is a tenure faculty at the Department of Psychology at the University of California at Berkeley and founding chair of the Psychology Department of Tsinghua University.

The happy farmer paradox, as explained above, asks the essential question: What is happiness? Is it positively correlated with income?

Peng, a believer in happiness that can only be obtained through free will, says that happiness is a very subjective term and one shouldn't and can't compare the level of happiness with others, especially when it involves cultural and ideological differences.

"You can only compare it with your old self," he says, speaking at a recent lecture in Shanghai titled "Can we become happy pigs?"

On the other hand, studies by many economists, especially Richard Easterlin, indicate once basic needs are met, an increase in income does not necessarily lead to more happiness.

Their views are demonstrated in some global happiness index rankings, as some of these surveys rank the beautiful yet not so economically well-off Latin American countries among the happiest nations. In other surveys, led by various scholars and organizations, North European countries such as Finland, Denmark and Sweden often occupy the top spaces.

China, despite its strong economy, is often in the middle to lower part of the rankings.

For example, in a ranking released by News Weekly last year, Finland, Switzerland and Sweden have been ranked the top three happiest countries, while China is listed 59th among 100 nations.

Similarly, the Annual Report of City Competitiveness, released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences on May 6, also shows a sharp contrast between economic growth and the level of happiness in Shanghai.

The report, started in 2001, evaluates the overall competitiveness of 294 Chinese cities based on a variety of different variables such as happiness index, economic efficiency, talent pool, financial capital, science and technology, and administrative capabilities of the municipal government, among all.

Shanghai is ranked second in overall competitiveness, just after Hong Kong and ahead of Beijing, but only 205th on the happiness index.

Beijing is ninth for happiness, the only metropolis in the top 10 in this category. The happiest city in China is Shijiazhuang, capital city of Hebei Province, not far from Beijing.

The other eight top spaces are occupied by much smaller or even little known cities like Yangzhou, a beautiful place in Jiangsu Province, Linxin of Shandong Province and Hebi of Henan Province.

Shanghai has been stably in the top three for overall competitiveness since 2005, but fell from 20th in the happiness index to the current 205th, a big gap between rapid economic development and the level of happiness.

This survey and other local research have found that people are most unhappy with traffic jams, the health care system, housing prices, the education system and the wealth gap.

Peng points out that what makes Chinese people unhappy is not the wealth gap itself, but the unfair ladder to wealth now.

"People won't be so unhappy if they see that everyone can reach that level of wealth through hard work and intelligence, rather than because of privileges related to family background. Then, it becomes a choice of free will to choose whether they want to make such efforts for such wealth. And happiness is only obtained through free will," he adds.

The surveys and the report look terrible for residents in Shanghai, but the number of "New Shanghainese" (those who come from out of town to settle in Shanghai) has only increased. Some even come from much happier cities, such as 26-year-old insurance agent Jessica Chen, a native of Yangzhou, which is ranked the third happiest Chinese city in the report.

"Although I'm not really happy now, I don't intend to leave Shanghai, because it has many more opportunities compared with other Chinese cities, which will offer me and my family more happiness in the future," Chen says.

Since she came to work here three years ago, Chen has never considered going back to her hometown. Rather, she plans to work particularly hard to settle in Shanghai, buy an apartment, get married and have children and finally bring her parents to live here as well.

She is one of many Chinese people who still follow the more traditional idea of working hard and even unhappily for a long time to obtain happiness later or so that their children can lead a happier life, as opposed to enjoying the best things everyday, which is often criticized as selfish.

They also believe that one will suffer if he enjoys and spends too much during youth. This may partly explain the high savings rate among the Chinese population.

However, this idea is also challenged by Peng, who believes that happiness is a continuing and lasting process rather than a final result.

Shanghai Daily has interviewed six residents in the city - one Shanghai native office worker, one office worker from out of town, a migrant worker, a middle-aged entrepreneur, a middle-aged laid-off housewife and a retired civil servant - to learn about their happiest and unhappiest memories in life.


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