China and the Easterlin Paradox

I have blogged before on the Easterlin Paradox and was interested to read about the relationship between economic growth and happiness. In the mid 1970s Richard Easterlin drew attention to studies that showed that, although successive generations are usually more affluent that their parents or grandparents, people seemed to be no happier with their lives. It is an interesting paradox to study when you are writing about measuring economic welfare and the standard of living.

What is the Easterlin Paradox?

  1. Within a society, rich people tend to be much happier than poor people.
  2. But, rich societies tend not to be happier than poor societies (or not by much).
  3. As countries get richer, they do not get happier. Easterlin argued that life satisfaction does rise with average incomes but only up to a point. One of Easterlin’s conclusions was that relative income can weigh heavily on people’s minds.

GDP growth is generally held as the most reliable predictor of a country’s level of happiness but in China GDP has increased 5 fold over the last 20 years but the level of well-being is less that in 1990. The levels of well-being bottomed out in the period of 2000-2005 and although have recovered they are not a level to that of 1990 – levels of happiness were high for then a poor country. This was similar to Russia before its transition where high levels of subjective well-being were reported.

Growth not a reliable indicator of happiness in China

Chinese level of happiness was highest in the 1990’s In the days of the “iron rice bowl system” – Chinese term used to refer to an occupation with guaranteed job security, as well as steady income and benefits. So it transpires that GDP growth in China was highest when happiness levels were falling. In fact, none of the six predictors used in the World Happiness Reports prove to be reliable predictors in China as there was little or no correlation between happiness and the six predictors- see below:

  1. GDP per capita,
  2. healthy years of life expectancy,
  3. social support (defined as having somebody to rely on in times of trouble),
  4. trust (defined as perceived absence of corruption in government and business),
  5. perceived freedom to make life deci-sions,
  6. generosity (defined as giving to charity)

The two main factors explaining China’s trajectory in happiness levels are unemployment and the social safety net. Unemployment rose sharply after 1990, reaching its peak in 2000–2005—the trough of China’s happiness—and has since declined moderately, as happiness levels have risen moderately. The level of unemployment is mirrored by the relative coverage of the social safety net over the same time period.

It seems that the restructuring of state-owned enterprises (SOE) has had the most profound effect on the happiness of Chinese people. This mirrors developments in Eastern European countries. In addition to unemployment rates and the social safety net, education and age are also important factors in determining Chinese people’s happiness over the period. Levels of education and of happiness are indeed linked; not only does a college education provide access to better job opportunities, but it also makes one more adaptable to changing circumstances.

Source:
Chinese Discourses on Happiness (2018) Edited by Gerda Wielander and Derek Hird

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