In China, more money but not more happiness, study says

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The economy may have boomed in China, but happiness hasn't boomed along with it, according to a University of Southern California study released Monday. Happiness levels dropped and then bounced back over the last two decades, changing little on the whole even as Chinese incomes grew at least fourfold.

The swings in the level of happiness seem to be tied to unemployment, said economics professor Richard A. Easterlin, a pioneering scholar in the happiness field and one of the authors of the report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Other factors that have dragged down happiness levels are increased inequality and the disappearance of the social safety net.

“When unemployment is up, not only do the unemployed become less happy, but the employed feel greater insecurity,” Easterlin said. “The clear lesson from China is how important it is for people’s happiness to have jobs and a fair amount of certainty about those jobs, as well as a social safety net.”

Happiness is under the microscope in China, which economists have eyed as a real-life laboratory to study how money, inequality and change are tied to our satisfaction with life. The Chinese government has even gotten in on the act, with cities devising new indexes to measure happiness and politicians pontificating on the importance of xingfu, The Times’ Barbara Demick reported last year.

Easterlin and his fellow economists based their findings on six surveys on life satisfaction in China, most of them conducted by Western firms. The fall and rise of happiness levels in China mirror the trends seen in Russia and other European countries transitioning from communism, Easterlin said.

But what makes China especially interesting is that happiness levels dipped and rose while incomes were soaring, showing that joblessness can drag happiness levels down even as national wealth is on the rise. The results echo earlier studies that have found that growing wealth does not tend to increase happiness because expectations rise along with it. People also tend to compare their wealth with others'.

“If somebody got a higher salary this year than last, he might not be happy," Jiaotong University professor Wang Fanghua told The Times last year. "But if his income is better than his friends', then he will be happy."

While money can't buy happiness, it does seem to make a difference: The poorest and least educated in China say they have grown less happy, while the richest seem to have grown happier, a dramatic shift from the past where people in China said they were more equally happy, the report says.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: A pedestrian bearing a Dr. Martens shopping bag makes his way in Beijing on May 7. Economists see China as a real-life laboratory to study how money, inequality and change are tied to our satisfaction with life. Credit: Nelson Ching / Bloomberg

 
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