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'Un'-Happy Chinese?

On October 20, a spokesman for the National Bureau of Statistics announced that the Chinese economy had grown a robust 9.4 percent in the first nine months of the year.

Zheng Jingping said that preliminary estimates show that China's gross domestic product (GDP) totaled 10.63 trillion yuan (US$1.3 trillion), a year-on-year rise of 9.4 percent, or a 0.1 percentage point decline from growth a year earlier.

With GDP growth rates standing at 9.4 percent, 9.5 percent and 9.4 percent for the first, second and third quarter respectively, this is a steady growth momentum.

If, from these healthy growth rates, it can be concluded that people are generally living better lives, can it also be said that they are necessarily happier?

Apparently not.

The speed of "harmonious development" of society as a whole cannot match that of the country's economic growth. In 2004, 15 percent of the country's GDP was spent on trying to undo or mitigate damage to the environment and ecology caused by pollution and immoderate development.

However, these efforts did little to raise the happiness quotient.

Ruut Veenhoven, a professor with Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam in the Netherlands, conducted three surveys on the Gross National Happiness (GNH) quotient in China. According to his analysis, the GNH in 1990 was 6.64 on a scale of one to 10. This figure rose to 7.08 in 1995. In 2001, that figure dropped to 6.60.

The term, "Gross National Happiness", was coined by Bhutan's King Jigme Singye Wangchuck when he ascended the throne in 1972. It signified his commitment to building an economy that would serve Bhutan's unique culture based on Buddhist spiritual values.

Today, the concept of GNH defines prosperity in more holistic terms and is a measure of actual well-being rather than consumption, which contrasts with the conventional concept of Gross National Product (GNP) that measures the sum total of material production and exchange in a country.

According to the surveys, a sustained rapid economic growth cannot ensure a continuous increase in happiness.

There is an old Chinese saying that goes:"Rich and successful people might be unhappy, but happy people are successful".

In an interview with Xinmin Weekly on October 20, Chen Huixiong, a professor with Zhejiang University of Finance and Economics, talked about a survey he had conducted between September 2003 and September 2005 entitled, Research on GNH of People From All Walks of Life in Zhejiang and Models of Harmonious Society.

According to Chen's survey, the sources of unhappiness for city residents can be divided into categories such as health, work, income, relationships; and the sources of unhappiness for rural residents include income, health, work, and loneliness.

Chen emphasizes that residents in the rural areas pay more attention to their income than those in urban areas, because economic pressures are higher.

In his opinion, happiness can mean two things.

First, happiness is leisure. Ten years ago, people only knew work days. Weekends and holidays were unheard of and unimaginable. Further, they never would have thought that so many items could be purchased so easily from a supermarket.

Despite this, why do people feel much busier now than before?

Chen theory is that ten years ago, people didn't need to undergo vocational training in order to keep their jobs, or there was less need for examinations and certificates then. 

Having said that, Chen pointed out that this doesn't mean people were happier in the past. One reason he gives is that because people back then didn't have as many holidays, they didn't have the time to relax or to indulge in a pastime or to realize their dreams.

Chen highlighted the oft heard complaint, "I'm a little bit tired", is the price people now pay for personal freedom.

Second, happiness is health.

"For the happiness of every citizen, a reliable system of social security is more important than the accumulation of personal fortune," Chen said.

He said that people often feel unhappy not because they do not have their own "cheese", but because others have bigger pieces. A bigger piece of "cheese" therefore has to be acquired in keeping up with the Joneses. If everyone could have just a piece each, a sense of happiness would override the need to possess "cheese" at all.

Chen added that in order to build a harmonious society in China, the government should pay more attention to narrowing the gap between rich and poor through the provision of more public amenities and facilities.

Quoting an old Chinese saying: "Contentment brings happiness", Chen said an increase in the happiness quotient can be realized through a gradual transcendence of unhappiness.

(China.org.cn by Wang Ke, October 27, 2005)

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