Happiness Doesn’t Always Follow Wealth

Over the past two decades China has shown a near-unfathomable rate of economic growth.  Despite this growth in wealth, Chinese people are less happy overall than they were 20 years ago, at the beginning of China’s economic expansion, a newly published long-term study has shown.  In 1990 Chinese people reported high levels of life satisfaction, without much of a disparity between income brackets—68 percent in the wealthiest income bracket and 65 percent in the poorest.  Since then however, life satisfaction has dropped dramatically among the poorest Chinese; in 2010 only 42 percent of the poorest Chinese reported high levels of life satisfaction.  Concurrently, the wealthiest Chinese who said they were satisfied grew by 3 percent, now up to 71 percent.

This goes to show that happiness does not always follow material wealth, even for something as large-scale as a country.  In its quest for wealth, it seems as though China has forgotten its people.  In regards to happiness, China used to be one of the most egalitarian countries, now it finds itself to be one of the least, even though its economic growth has been unprecedented.  This change follows the realization that the Chinese government has not released an official report about wealth distribution in over a decade.

The answer to China’s dilemma—the incongruence between its economic growth rate and its people’s falling happiness levels—may be found in what it had to sacrifice to reach such rapid economic growth.  It has sacrificed its health; pollution has wreaked havoc on industrial cities, contaminating their water and ruining their air quality.  It has sacrificed its culture; as a result of industrialization and the ensuing globalization, Western ideals and customs have infiltrated traditional Chinese culture, and pose a threat to replace it.  It has even sacrificed its children; child labor has become a gigantic issue in China, with an estimated 5 million children working in its factories.

All this sacrifice, and for what?  Power? Perhaps, but how powerful can a country be if it is full of unhappy citizens?  If anything can be learned from China’s situation it is that a country is only as strong as its people.  No amount of exports, imports, weapons, or wealth will trump the importance of the people that populate a country.  Without the people, none of the aforementioned things would exist.

The long-term study was conducted by Richard Easterlin, an economics professor at the University of Southern California and one of the founders of the field “happiness economics,” it is titled, “China’s life satisfaction, 1990-2010.”

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