There is more to happiness than simply being told we're happy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 April, 2012, 12:00am


In the dystopian 1921 novel We, Russian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin paints a picture of a society where everyone must be happy. In that perfect world, people practise self-hypnosis by telling themselves: 'I am so happy ... so happy.'

And if some don't want to be happy, it's the government's duty to force happiness upon them.

Today, this situation can be likened to that of mainland authorities never relenting in telling citizens how blissful their lives are.

A survey released last week, conducted by China Central Television and the National Bureau of Statistics, named 20 cities as the 'happiest in China'.

Topping the list was Lhasa , Tibet . What wasn't mentioned is that a series of riots, protests and demonstrations occurred in the region just a few years ago.

The survey also said that of the nation's 1.3 billion people, only about 13 per cent are unhappy or extremely unhappy, eerily close to the 'perfect' world that Zamyatin imagined.

But not everyone is buying the official take on how happy Chinese people are.

'Why don't I feel happy in a happy city? Maybe I'm comfortably numb,' one comment on said about the survey.

The survey findings are in stark contrast to the results of a poll conducted by Gallup, an international consulting firm based in Washington. Caixin reported on Monday that the Gallup poll indicated that only 18 per cent of mainlanders felt happy.

Local governments also love to share their happy stories through party mouthpieces.

The Beijing Evening News reported last Tuesday that a new 'happy family' competition had been launched in the capital, and families could enter by sharing their cheerful pictures and love stories. The top prize is a free trip to Europe.

The Ningxia Daily in the Ningxia Hui autonomous region said people there felt much safer nowadays and were therefore happier. 'I could leave my bicycle unlocked on the street for days and no one would steal it,' the paper quoted a local resident as saying.

Both the Xinjiang Daily and the Bandao Morning Post in Dalian ran a story last week boasting that their local officials were working hard to please their people. 'Making all citizens happy is important in a harmonious society,' the Dalian paper said in an editorial.

That conclusion is correct, but a 'happy China' is more like a painful national joke. Check mainland media headlines daily and you might become depressed rather than cheerful.

Last Monday, China Daily reported that a former deputy district head in Shanghai had accepted bribes of more than 15 million yuan (HK$18.4 million) over the past eight years. On Tuesday, the China Securities Journal revealed that a publicly listed pharmaceutical company in Shanghai had been using toxic drug capsules.

And on Wednesday, the Yangcheng Evening News said some factories in Guangdong were using bleach to make candied fruit look more appealing. A local factory owner, speaking to an undercover reporter, said he would never eat the snacks he makes.

The next day, media reported that the manufacturing process of a well-known brand of instant dumplings in Zhengzhou , Henan , didn't meet safety standards, according to local industrial and commerce officials.

The people affected by these scandals are obviously not happy, as they have been stripped of their sense of security and dignity.

Migrant workers are also unhappy. Research conducted by Renmin University of China and released last week showed that nearly 70 per cent of migrant workers believed they were living at the bottom of society.

'I don't know where the happiness is,' a migrant told the 21st Century Business Herald, 'but I know there is some distance between me and happiness.'

China's modernisation has transformed millions of lives in countless ways. Thirty years ago, having basic supplies was all that mattered, and people were happy if they could live modestly. But Chinese today have different dreams, such as being part of a society with equal opportunities and social justice. Instead of telling people what happiness is, the government needs to face these new challenges before many lose hope of ever achieving real happiness.