While 500 million people have moved from rural China into modern cities, a recent study by Richard Easterlin, a professor of economics at the University of Southern California and the author of Happiness, Growth and the Life Cycle, shows that there is no evidence that the Chinese people are, on average, any happier.
If anything, according to an article in the New York Times, they are less satisfied than in 1990, and the burden of decreasing satisfaction has fallen hardest on the bottom third of the population in wealth. Satisfaction among Chinese in even the upper third has risen only moderately.
What were the findings?
Starting in 1990, as China moved from socialism to a free-market economy, real per-capita consumption and gross domestic product doubled, then doubled again. Most households now have at least one colour TV, and many have refrigerators and washing machines. This was rare before 1990.
In the studies conducted by Easterlin participants were asked about their satisfaction with life as a whole and he was startled to find that Chinese people’s feelings of wellbeing have declined in a period of such momentous improvement in their economic lives.
After all, most of us would assume that a fourfold increase in a people’s material living standard would make them considerably happier.
Interestingly, before free-market reforms kicked in, most urban Chinese workers enjoyed what was called an “iron rice bowl”: permanent jobs and an extensive employer-provided safety net, which included subsidised food, housing, healthcare, childcare, pensions and jobs for grown children.
Life satisfaction during this period among urban Chinese, despite their much lower levels of income, was almost as high as in the developed world.
The transition to a more private economy in the 1990s abruptly overturned the iron rice bowl. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese who worked at inefficient and unprofitable state companies were laid off. The loss of jobs also meant the loss of the employer-provided safety net.
Worries about job security are reflected in feelings of financial satisfaction. At the same time more Chinese were reporting that their health deteriorated.
China’s transition has been similar in several respects to the transitions of countries in central and Eastern Europe. In almost all countries, life satisfaction initially declined and then recovered to numbers somewhat below pre-transition levels.