This is the question raised in a recent article in the Journal of Happiness Studies: “The China puzzle: falling happiness in a rising economy”, by Hilke Brockman, Jan Delhey, Christian Weizel and Hao Yuan (V10, 4, 2009).
The focus of the study is the decade from 1990 to 2000. Even though real per capita GDP in China was 2.8 times higher in 2000 than in 1990, the percentage of Chinese describing themselves as very happy declined from 28 percent to 12 percent and the average life satisfaction rating fell from 7.3 to 6.5 (on the WVS 10 point scale).
The authors consider three possible explanations: anomie (powerlessness), political disaffection (declining trust in government) and relative deprivation (frustration because increased income inequality resulted in a higher proportion of the population with below average incomes). Anomie is measured by survey data on the lack of a feeling of free choice and control over the way you live your life. Political disaffection is measured by survey data on lack of trust in the government and parliament. Survey data on financial dissatisfaction (dissatisfaction with the financial situation of your household) is used as a proxy for relative deprivation.
To cut a long story short, the authors conclude that relative deprivation provides the best explanation because the decline in life satisfaction is strongly associated with a decline in financial satisfaction. (A fuller summary of the article is available on Psyblog )
The main problem I have with this conclusion is that data presented in the article suggests that average life satisfaction of high income earners declined along with the life satisfaction of those on lower incomes. There was no reason for the high income earners to feel relative deprivation.
When I look closely at the data it seems to me that the main puzzle is not why average life satisfaction in China was lower in 2000 than in 1990, but why such a high proportion of Chinese were recorded as satisfied with life in 1990. This figure, 68 percent, was higher than in such high income countries as Austria, France, Germany and Japan.
When you look at average life satisfaction of people in different age groups (Fig. 1) older people seem to have been much happier than young people in 1990 and the situation has been partially reversed since then. A comparison of Figure 1 and Figure 2 shows similar patterns for life satisfaction and financial satisfaction. This suggests to me that the apparent decline in average life satisfaction between 1990 and 2000 might possibly be attributable to perceptions by older people that their financial security had declined for some reason e.g. concerns that as a result of social changes young people might be less likely to support them in their old age.
Even if we disregard the 1990 data, however, it is apparent from the Figures that we are still left with the problem of explaining why average life satisfaction and financial satisfaction has not increased since the mid 1990s. The decline in consumption as a percentage of GDP from about 50 percent around 1980 to about 32 percent in recent years cannot provide a complete explanation, because this has not prevented real per capita consumption from increasing substantially.
My guess is that the failure of average life satisfaction to rise in China is associated with a change in the benchmarks that people use to assess their current well-being. In 1990 many people in China may have been using past living standards as the benchmark in assessing their current satisfaction with life. Since then, however, their aspirations have probably risen as they have come to view the living standards enjoyed in high income countries as attainable in the foreseeable future. If I am right most Chinese people would probably agree that “they have never had it so good”, to borrow an unsuccessful political slogan. But those old enough to remember what life was like 30 years ago would probably rather forget about that.
Note: The subjective well-being data referred to above is from the World Values Survey. Gallup data also shows no increase in subjective well-being in China. See: http://www.gallup.com/poll/14548/chinese-far-wealthier-than-decade-ago-they-happier.aspx