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September 11, 2010

Unhappy China

NPR ran a story today questioning whether China’s happy. It also mentioned one Jiangsu town that’s experimenting with a Bhutan-style government-mandated happiness program. The results aren’t convincing so far:

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But the article equivocates on how happy China really is:

Survey results on happiness in China seem to be entirely contradictory. The most recent Pew Global Attitudes survey found that 87 percent of Chinese people surveyed were satisfied with the way things were going in their country, making it the most satisfied country by far out of all they surveyed.

But a European Union survey ranked China 128th out of 150 countries in terms of happiness. And one recent survey of 50,000 college students showed a surprising level of gloom.

But the surveys aren’t contradictory at all. China is extremely satisfied with its economic progress and growing power, but these are opinions about the state of the nation.

Surveys of individual happiness—how happy are you?—are much more dismal. In terms of happiness, China ranks near Nigeria and Indonesia—and below Iran.

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(Based on the 2007 World Gallup Poll on life satisfaction.)

The NPR story is a lot like the best-selling book Unhappy China (中国不高兴), which confuses happiness in the title with success in international politics. According to this Time article about the book, the book is mostly a freedom-fry-style (or freedom-cucumber-style?) nationalist rant against the French for meeting with the Dalai, protests at the Olympic torch relay, and calls for China to reign in its pollution. (Still number one in the “smoke of progress!”)

Most of my Chinese friends tell me that China is facing a social crisis of happiness, where people feel they can’t trust each other, materialism is clouding out true happiness, and capitalism brings out an ever more dog-eat-dog unease. It’s disappointing to see NPR confusing happiness with satisfaction with the state of the nation.