Chinese growth and happiness

—Peter N. Stearns

Recent surveys on Chinese life satisfaction provide yet another indication of the fraught relationship between modern development and overall happiness. The New York Times report by Richard Easterlin—always one of our most interesting social scientists—shows pretty clearly that stupendous growth in the overall economy and in consumption standards over the past two decades has not only not generated corresponding increases in reported satisfaction, but has actually accompanied a decline. Results plummeted as growth accelerated in the 1990s, then picked up a bit in the past few years but without recovering 1990 levels.

Happiness is a tricky thing to measure, of course, and it’s interesting that the Easterlin terminology alternates between happiness and life satisfaction, which are not necessarily exactly the same things. Comparative studies suggest that happiness is a tricky concept in East Asian cultures (in contrast to the West and Latin America), but this would not per se distort findings over time within the same culture.

It’s certainly nice to see a discussion of Chinese issues free from our common impulse to bash or gloat. This is a nervous time for mutual U.S. and Chinese perceptions, and we often distort problems in an effort to feel better—happier?—about China’s impressive surge. (Here’s a scary thought: How much has American happiness come to depend on claims we’re better than others, regardless of data?)

But the Easterlin findings do suggest a couple of further thoughts about happiness and modernity:

First, the findings are absolutely unsurprising in any historical perspective. China is still in relatively early phases of industrial maturation. I don’t think there is any record of any society in a similar phase in which happiness does not decline. Of course we lack the polling data for the past that we now enjoy, so my assertion can’t be fully proved. But the major source of outright decline in China rests among the bottom third of the population, faced with massive change including introduction to factory work conditions and encounters with urban life even as attachments to the countryside remain strong. This sounds eerily familiar to historians who have worked on Britain’s—or Germany’s, or Japan’s—industrial surge—or even the United States’s in its period of massive industrial immigration. This doesn’t detract from the Easterlin findings, or prevent us from hoping that the Chinese will more quickly figure out how to do things better. But it does remind us—regardless of our views on the benefits and drawbacks of more fully achieved modern economies—that modernization has always come with a price.

Which means that, in evaluating modernity more generally, the more interesting Easterlin finding may be the only moderate improvement in satisfaction among the upper third of the Chinese population. These folks are not facing the worst strains of the process. They are by definition more prosperous, and often more accustomed to urban conditions. Yet even they are not jumping with joy.

Easterlin concludes that the Chinese data point to the important of beefing up the safety net, to provide fuller protections for the poorer classes: more job security, better health care, more help for children and the elderly. And he uses his findings to warn Americans about tolerating too much further deterioration in our own nets. I don’t disagree, and would only add a plea for attention to environmental safety nets as well.

But there is probably more than safety nets involved, which is where the upper third comes in—and where we can also draw some lessons for ourselves. We know that, reflected in the Chinese case, a first turn to consumerism increases happiness but that the surge is often moderate and that it’s always finite: further improvements don’t help. China may be facing not only safety net issues but also broader concerns about finding value and meaning in modern life. And here, though there may be more specifically Chinese factors involved, they clearly join the modern throng.

For although modernized societies tend to be happier than nonmodern, the gap is variable and not, on the whole, as great as might be expected given standard of living gains. Here is where, along with safety net repair, Chinese and American observers unquestionably find common ground. We all need to be thinking about improving our management of modern success at both social and personal levels. We need to seize opportunities to share insights and learn from mutual experience. More and more of us, obviously, are in the modern boat together, and we can probably figure out how to steer it better.

Peter N. Stearns is Provost and University Professor at George Mason University. He is the editor-in-chief of The Journal of Social History, and author of Satisfaction Not Guaranteed: Dilemmas of Progress in Modern Society (NYU Press, 2012).

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