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China: One of the Unhappiest Places on Earth… How come?

Recently I came across the UN’s “World Happiness Report” and I was surprised to learn that China ranked a measly 112th out of 156 polled countries. My first reaction was, “But China seems to be doing so well (economically). Why would they be rated even lower than Greece for example?” Upon further reflection and a web search or two later for information, it appeared I’d made that age old assumption that so many have erroneously made before me, mainly thinking that money, in this case in the form economic development as reflected in national GDP, somehow equaled happiness. Much of what has been written about this happiness report and others like it focus on what, material wealth being the prime example, China and Chinese have today in regards o the past and people are left befuddled. The old saying, “Money can’t buy you happiness”, is as true for China and the rest of us today as it always was and this got me thinking more about what China lacks, things “economic development” doesn’t include and more than likely causes a dearth of.

In the Good ol’ Days

Thinking back to when I first arrived back in Shanghai in 2009, I recall my general feeling that although there were many more shinny new buildings and shinny new cars, my old friends from years before who now owned homes in said buildings and drove said cars, didn’t really seem more happy. What they seemed was, more stressed. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that we were all older and the majority of them were now parents or soon to be parents, but it didn’t seem like these changes could account for my impression that with more development and more personal possessions, my friends seemed to be enjoying life less. One big change that I soon noticed was that the topics of conversation had changed to almost a single unwavering one, a quite uninteresting one, “money”. More often than not, 90% or more of the conversations I had with my old acquaintances were about money, stocks, buying homes, buying phones, shopping, the prices of vegetables, the ayi’s wages, and equally unfulfilling monetary jibber jabber.

Nearly decade before, when no one I knew in China even really dreamed of owning things like cars, our conversations revolved around other topics, happier topics, like family life, travel dreams, sports and generally enjoyable pursuits. Sure China had developed and people got more stuff, but that didn’t bring happiness, it brought obsession with getting more stuff and unfulfillment with what they already had. For example, one of my first friends I made in Shanghai, back in 2001, once told me he wished I’d stay in China and perhaps one day I’d be rich enough to buy a car and I could hire him to be my driver. Fast-forward ahead 8 years and this same man is driving around in a a brand new Nissan luxury sedan telling me he wishes he could own a BMW SUV. Clearly, the ability to buy things, did not bring happiness, on the contrary, it detracted from it. Another friend’s mother had passed away and her father and her ended up becoming estranged from her mother’s side of the family as her grandmother and uncle had taken her father to court in an effort to confiscate her late mother’s estate. Sad but true, and it can happen everywhere, not just China, but at one time not so long ago, it didn’t.

The Canadian Comparison

This led me to my next question: Why are happy people/nations happy? Luckily, Canada, my home country, ranked quite high on the list at number 5 allowing me to make some comparisons about Chinese vs Canadian lives. The key difference for me in coming to China, as I’m sure it is for many Canadians residing here, is the environment. Clean air, clean water, and wide open underpopulated natural spaces is one of the key traits of Canada and I believe one of the things that make Canadians much happier than the Chinese. Grey smog filled skies and concrete construction as far as the eye can see aren’t things that anyone can imagine as inducing a state of contentedness, let alone joyous rapture. For the past week, while Beijing has been submitted to a deluge of biblical proportions, Shanghai has enjoyed a spell of cleaner skies than I’ve ever seen in China. Why the sky is almost as blue as it is in Canada. This development has definitely put a smile on my face and my happiness quotient has improved accordingly. So I think there is something to this line of reasoning.

Then there’s that other Canada trait I miss, wide open space filled with all the goodness nature can offer. China may have wide open space filled with lush greenery, monkeys and tigers, but I’ve not seen it and I suspect neither have most Chinese. After-all, unlike Canada, China is not a nation where people take to the great outdoors and do things like hiking and camping. Nature, for the most part, is scary for the average Chinese citizen. I remember in 2001 during my first visit to Shanghai when I took a group of high school students to a park in my area of the city. Inside the ancient walled garden, the only area of green grass for dozens of square kilometers. After having walked around for some time I invited my students to come take a break and enjoy hanging out on the lawn. Not one sat down. “But teacher, that’s dirty” they protested looking down at me with a sky so grey the sun couldn’t be discerned behind them. True this situation has improved and in the new area I live in now, there are many green parks and locals can be seen sitting on the lawns and enjoying weekend afternoons, but that is another problem, at least for me. I find it very difficult to enjoy an afternoon at a park where there are latterly thousands of people crowded around yelling at each other, cell phones ringing, electric bikes honking, and kids peeing on every bush and flower bed. Not really the scenic relaxing atmosphere that makes you feel happy and rejuvenated.

The (unhappy) Party

So that could be one reason Chinese are more miserable than their GDP growth would seem to predict, but it certainly isn’t the only one, or perhaps even the most important one. China, for the worse rather than the better, has the Communist Party and Chinese Culture fouling up the waters of the pursuit of happiness. At a very basic level, being controlled by the worst export of Western Culture, communism is a less than idealist situation where happiness is concerned. Being ruled under the iron fist of autocracy with no personal say or stake in the affairs of the nation is a burden that humanity finds hard to bear at the best of times, but in China things have gotten worse recently.

While the excesses of malignant control, Tiananmen Square, The Cultural Revolution, and the Great Leap fade into the past precisely because China has developed. An upwardly mobile middle class has meant not only that the better off in China’s Eastern cities have become less willing to maintain the status quo with The Party unreachably on top, but the lower classes too are becoming less and less submissive to Party rule. This is evidenced in the 200,000 plus “mass incidents” (commie speak for “riots against the government”) per year here, the most recent being in Dalian, a protest against a new chemical plant, that grew in size to rival that which took place in Beijing in 1989. Elsewhere in China where the environment and ultimately the lives of local residents are to be destroyed in the name of “development”, people are becoming increasingly unhappy and willing to revolt. Hardly the picture of “harmony”, the Party’s stand-in for happiness” the government tries so hard to promote, or more accurately drive down the throats of its captive citizens.

Harmony doesn’t = Happiness!

Just what is “harmony” anyway? By all Chinese and expat accounts, if one tenth of what the government says holds any truth, China should be the most harmonious, and by extension, happiest place on the planet. Even Wen Jiabao, China’s Premier when so far as to say “harmony = happiness”, but of course, it does not. The “harmony” CCP officials are constantly harping on about is Confucian Social Harmony. In Confucian thought, Social Harmony is the ultimate goal of a society. This harmony means that everyone has a place in society, knows that place, and most importantly, stays in it. It’s a very stagnant representation of society and hardly one that can be achieved in a rapidly modernizing economy and society like China now posses. What the government I really saying is “don’t rock the boat no matter how unhappy you are” because the Party is perched in the crow’s nest high above the mast and they’ll be the first to plunge into the cold dark waters of revolution hopefully never to be seen again. China’s “harmony” therefore is not concerned with Chinese people’s well-being and happiness, it is concerned with the destruction of to preserve the parties place high atop the mast far removed from the people manning the decks.

Lies don’t make anyone Happy!

Having no say in government and being constantly harassed with cheerful messages promoting the backward Confucius principle of “a harmonious society” is enough to drive any educated socially mobile person mad, but in China, it is even a bigger detriment to happiness than even this predicts. China’s ruling party goes to great lengths to preserve the nonexistent harmony, manly though outright censorship and media control. For example, in an effort to “promote harmony”, the report that this blog entry finds its genesis in and this very blog itself are technically illegal.

The United Nation’s recently-released World Happiness Report has listed mainland China as the 112th happiest country out of 156. Many websites re-posted the report which was initially released by Xinhua.net.

From the State Council Information Office:
Regarding “UN Releasing World Happiness Report, China Ranked 112,” all websites are not to re-post the report. All existing posts are subject to removal.

国新办:联合国首发全球幸福指数报告 中国内地排112
国新办:《联合国首发全球幸福指数报告 中国内地排112》网站不转载此条新闻,已转载的删除。


And this is not the only story that get’s repressed. Basically when anything goes wrong in China, as it frequently does, one of these government directives is sent to all the press and nothing or at the very least, only positive things get published about the incident. Right now in China the big story is the flooding in Beijing that claimed at lead 100 lives due primarily to the great amount or rain and equally too the government’s focus on razzle dazzle development instead of less shinny things like sewage and drainage.

China censors flood coverage

BEIJING: Beijing’s propaganda chief has ordered Chinese media to stick to good news about weekend floods, according to a report, after the death of at least 37 people sparked fierce criticism of the government.

Lu Wei told media outlets to stick to stories of “achievements worthy of praise and tears”, the Beijing Times daily reported Monday, as authorities tried to stem the tide of accusations that they failed to do enough.

Residents of China’s rapidly modernising capital have said some of the deaths could have been prevented if better warnings had been issued and the city’s ancient drainage systems modernised.

Many took to China’s popular microblogs, known as weibos, to question the official death toll of 37 issued on Sunday, although by Tuesday, censors had begun deleting critical posts from the Internet.


Even those worst affected who haven’t been afforded an education to speak of and most likley don’t have internet access know that whatever the government says about this latest incident is a bunch of bullshit.

How does this and all the other attempts at mind control relate to happiness? It’s simple, people don’t like being lied to. Chinese have been lied to by their rulers since the day New China was founded. Promised land that was quickly stolen from the murdered landlords and then just as quickly taken away. Told to criticize the government in the 100 flowers campaign just to be jailed for doing so. Told to rebel against the Party just to end up sent to the countryside as cheap slave labor as punishment for following orders. Told that to be rich is glorious just to find out most can never be rich and become unhappy at this realization. And now when they see their neighbors swept away in waters the government should have been prepared for, they are in effect asked to make believe it didn’t happen to preserve “harmony” What a sad crock of shit to say the least.

Hope, and Happiness, is not Lost

But all hope is not lost, there are still ways to be happy. The most important one, that even I have some trouble following at all times, is stop thinking about money. I tell you the truth when I say I am happier in China, number 112 on the world ranking, than I was in Canada, number 5, simply because I don’t have to think about money nearly as much here. I am lucky for sure in this regard as I have enough of it, but even if you have less, you can still try.

The second way is to get out and do some sport. Ride your bike or go to the crowded park and fly a kite. You’ll be happier if you do.It’s good for your body and if your body feels good, so too will your mind.

Third, love the people around you and take an active interest in their lives. Don’t spend all your time talking about shopping or property prices. Things are cold and without feeling. The people around you are real and by caring about them, you’ll feel real to. Real an genuine and happy.

Fourth, ignore the government. Every time the Party comes on the news with a BS message about “harmony” GDP, the South sea or any other stupid story, turn it off. Go to your local bookstore and buy a book to read instead. Or better yet, check my blog for something interesting.

Fifth, if you do have to think about what you have, try not to think about what you don’t have. Instead think about how much better off you are than many of the people around you and try to find some way you can use your economically privilege position to help them. After-all the happiest thing you can ever hope to do is bring a smile to the face of someone less fortunate than you.


Further Reading:

World Happiness Report

Rising wealth in China fails to buy more happiness

Money and Happiness: China Surveys Suggest a Limited Link

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

The goal of the CPPCC: ‘Make people happy’

For China, Economic Growth Doesn’t Always Equal Happiness

Are China & North Korea happier than America?

China’s life satisfaction, 1990–2010

Amazing Pictures, Pollution in China

China censors flood coverage

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One comment

  1. I’d just like to add that I do not find China to be a particularly unhappy place…

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