Individual Happiness in China

Darcy Pacheco, Period 3

China, also known as the People’s Republic of China (PRC), is the world’s largest communist country, with a population of over 1.381 billion.[1] Communist ideology entails the establishment of a socioeconomic order structured upon the common ownership of the means of production and the absence of social classes as well as the absence of the state. In a country that dictates communism, which is why the concept of free will is greatly curtailed, how is happiness promoted by China? Individual happiness is promoted in Chinese society and culture by being economically successful.

The Chinese society is based off of Confucian values, filial piety, relationships/networks, and service to the country with utmost loyalty. Happiness can best be described in China as a “harmonious homeostasis” within oneself and his or her environment. It is focused on aspects such as self-cultivation, mind-work, and positive evaluations of the self by others. They also have a tendency of placing less emphasis on happiness and worrying less about life satisfaction. Happiness can be viewed as self-autonomous; personal actions must be governed by morality and a virtuous life is a meaningful life.

Even though China was founded on these values, China today illustrates the role of money in happiness. Happiness in China is modeled to be dependent on each individual’s income; the more affluent one is the better. However, despite an unprecedented rate of economic growth, development, and poverty reduction, Chinese people have experienced a decline in life satisfaction for two decades.[2] As of 2014, China is ranked 127th out of 145 in the happiness index.[3] This greatly contrasts from China’s ranking on the North Korea Global Happiness Index several years ago; according to the communist country, China is the world’s ‘happiest’ place.[4] Reasons that could contribute to the decline of happiness can be attributed to: the relative wealth effect, the large rural-urban gap in income, a higher education gap between rural and urban populations has widened, and the state of the environment.

The relative wealth effect in China demonstrates a desire for money. As one’s income increases, people aspire for more than what they currently have. This is based off of the concept of relative deprivation. The best way to explain it is by providing the following example: your neighbor received a huge pay raise from work and you may become jealous and relatively deprived even though it doesn’t affect your own income. In this case, the relative wealth effect can decrease one’s state of well-being and lead to a decline of happiness.

The large rural-urban gap in income has led to multiple issues in the contemporary Chinese economy. Chinese citizens will often resent one another because of it. There is no in-between when it comes to income in China. Even during the Chinese reform period, the rural-urban gap had widened. It is also important to note that China has one of the largest rural-urban gaps in the world, with urban residents’ incomes more than triple those of their rural counterparts.[5]

A higher education gap between rural and urban populations has widened over the past years. This has resulted in the rural population being less educated and an increase of tension with the wealthy. The saying knowledge means power holds to be evident in a society where the educated have more access to an extensive variety of resources. This creates a negative environment for those who live in poverty which accounts for more than eighty-two million of the population.[6]

The state of China’s environment is also a reflection of the low quality of people’s life satisfaction. A few of China’s top concerns are in regards to environmental issues. An example of the poor environmental conditions is shown in early 2013. The city of Beijing’s pollution index exceeded the safety threshold for 19 days out of 31 days. Furthermore, in a list of the world’s ten most polluted places, two Chinese cities were at the top of the list.[7] This highlights not only the seriousness of the problem, but also how air pollution has become a national problem.

Overall, China’s society is not compatible with the Aristotelian view of the individual’s happiness.  Aristotle enshrines happiness as a central purpose of human life and a goal in itself. In these terms, only happiness is an end in itself which is why it’s viewed by him as the ultimate end at which all our activities aim. He views happiness as a complete and sufficient good. This implies that it is desired for itself, that it is not desired for the sake of anything else, that it satisfies all desire and has no evil mixed in with it, and that it is stable. Aristotle claims that nearly everyone would agree that happiness is the end which meets all these requirements. Individual happiness is not something that can be gained or lost in a few hours, it is the ultimate value of your life  which measures how well one has lived up to his or her full potential as a human being. This is why one cannot determine if one has lived a happy life until it is over.

The Aristotelian perspective makes reference to happiness as an “activity.” This defines happiness from our modern definition of happiness and from virtue, which Aristotle refers to as a “disposition.” Nicomachean Ethics breaks down the concept of happiness as something one cannot ensure even if one excels in all the moral virtues. The only way an individual’s happiness can be ensured is if we exercise those virtues that are given to us. However, virtue is difficult to attain, since if people simply follow their inclinations. This denotes that even though we have a natural desire for happiness, our inborn inclinations can lead us away from one’s true happiness. Aristotle makes a further elaboration by providing the following example: only the best athletes win at the Olympic Games if they compete. If the athlete were to stand on the sidelines, it would be like a virtuous person who does not exercise his or her virtue. Thus being said, happiness waits only for those who go out and make an effort to find it.

Happiness combines an element over which we have greater control, otherwise known as virtue, with elements over which we have lesser control such as health, wealth, and friends. Aristotle establishes that a virtuous person alone can attain happiness and a virtuous person can never be miserable in the deepest sense, regardless of misfortune which would keep one from being achieving happiness.

The Aristotelian view of individual happiness differs with China between the concepts of happiness and life satisfaction. It is important to clarify that there is a difference between the two. While they are both the ultimate end goal in life, happiness in terms of Aristotle is the sole purpose of one’s existence and the pinnacle state of one’s well-being. Life satisfaction in China on the other hand means that being satisfied implies being content, sufficient and adequate, of being acceptable, of being good enough. The people of China each view their individual happiness as being able to meet an expectation. With this expectation comes a standard and one can be closer or further from meeting it. In regards to happiness, there are no upper limits to happiness in theory.

Looking at China’s society, it does not correspond to Aristotle’s beliefs. China highly regards economic prosperity which differs from the message Aristotle illustrates in Nicomachean Ethics. His ideology is important because he expresses how a life of gratification and money-making will not lead to individual happiness. Therefore, this ideology promotes a life based upon China’s Confucian values which is what China should put more of an emphasis on instead.

[1] “China Population (LIVE).” China Population (2016). Accessed May 03, 2016.

[2] “Happiness and Health in China: The Paradox of Progress.” The Brookings Institution. 2015. Accessed May 03, 2016.

[3] “CBS Questions Credibility of Reports.” KuenselOnline. Accessed May 03, 2016.

[4] Wong, Curtis M. “North Korea Global Happiness Index: China Is The World’s ‘Happiest’ Place.” The Huffington Post. Accessed May 03, 2016.

[5] Frazier, Mark W. “Narrowing the Gap: Rural-Urban Inequality in China.” Narrowing the Gap: Rural-Urban Inequality in China. 2013. Accessed May 03, 2016.

[6] “China: More than 82 Million People Live Below Poverty Line.” International Business Times RSS. 2014. Accessed May 03, 2016.

[7] Kapur, Saranya. “Becoming Richer Hasn’t Made China Much Happier.” Business Insider. 2013. Accessed May 03, 2016.



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