What can we learn about happiness from China?

What can we learn about happiness from China?

China’s happiest cities



UPIA Asia Online

Guest Commentary

Chinese citizens are being asked to select the country’s 10 “happiest cities” by filling out a questionnaire and casting their votes in the country’s first such competition. Participants may choose from a list of 35 large and medium-sized candidate cities.

The “happiness index” provided by the organizer includes the following items: the people’s sense of security based on employment, income and social security; their quality of life based on residence, environment and access to medical care and education; their mental and emotional satisfaction based on levels of tension and state of mind; the degree of harmony in interpersonal relations and in people’s relations with society; and their contentment with social and urban development.

All these indexes are oriented toward people’s private lives while ignoring or avoiding concerns about public life. In my opinion, however, no matter how happy an individual may be, if he or she has little or no public life, that happiness will be incomplete.

The concept of a happy city should not mean one in which everyone can leisurely enjoy shopping and choosing different brands of air-conditioners, color TVs and cars. It should not mean the city’s residents enjoy drinking, entertaining, singing, dancing and playing mahjong and poker. This kind of happiness is a bit too cheap. It is biological happiness at best, not sociological happiness, which we need to discuss.

The feeling of happiness arises from satisfaction in two aspects of life — private and public. An individual living in a city can only find true self-esteem and feel valuable as a “host” of the city based on his role in the public sphere. Happiness based on this foundation is real, substantial and reliable. Happiness based only on such factors as personal living conditions, emotions and interpersonal relationships is inward, unreliable and delusory.

Ren Hongxie, a Chinese scientist who lived in the early 20th century, commented on this matter in 1920. He said: “When we observe the degree of civilization in a country today, we don’t look at its size, population, weapons and soldiers. Instead, we look at its people’s knowledge and intelligence, the structure of its social institutions and the evolution of its ordinary life.”

The most important factor is a country’s social institutions, as this determines the quality of the people’s public life and their opportunities for self-management, self-improvement and self-realization. Social institutions include various organizations in different fields. They are formed voluntarily in civil society. There are common criteria in evaluating the happiness level of a city and the level of civilization of a country: the more developed and better established its social institutions are, the happier its people will be. Through social institutions different people can find their own positions and realize their own value.

To put it simply, in urban life, it is a city’s autonomy that most directly determines its people’s happiness. In other words, to what extent can the city embody the will of its ordinary people? How much space do ordinary people have for self-development and free competition? Do ordinary people have convenient and normal channels through which to voice their opinions or various social issues and problems? Do ordinary people have opportunities to offer their services in public affairs? If these indexes are missing, people cannot attain complete happiness.

Among the world’s population, more than 50 percent now live in cities. Although in China the ratio of rural population is still higher than the urban population, the rate of urbanization is accelerating. The inevitable trend today is that cities are leading the way.

But both urban and rural areas are merely places for people to live; they should always be centered on the human beings who live there. Therefore, when we talk about the “happiest cities,” we are actually discussing the feelings of the people who live there. Despite differences in feelings between people, we can still reach a sound concept of “happiness” which cannot be determined only at the level of private life.

A recent survey suggests that 99 percent of students from mainland China who are studying in Hong Kong hope to stay and develop their careers there. The main reasons they give are that Hong Kong gives them a sense of personal value, a wide range of opportunities, freedom of speech and a highly efficient lifestyle.

From these students’ views we may conclude that Hong Kong is the “happiest city.” But unfortunately, on China’s list of 35 candidate cities, even though it returned to China ten years ago, Hong Kong is not included.