Money and Happiness: China Surveys Suggest a Limited Link

After two decades of extraordinarily rapid economic growth, people in China aren’t much happier than when they started, suggests a new review of happiness and national income in the world’s largest, most economically accelerated country.

On the whole, China’s wealthy are slightly happier than before, but little appears to have changed among middle-income earners. Among lower income brackets, life satisfaction seems to have dropped precipitously.

These trends are not an argument against capitalism or economic growth — but they do hint at shortcomings in using standard economic metrics as shorthand for well-being.

“There is no evidence of an increase in life satisfaction of the magnitude that might have been expected to result from the fourfold improvement in the level of per capita consumption,” write researchers led by economist Richard Easterlin in their May 15 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper.

Easterlin, a University of Southern California economist, became famous after his 1974 paper — “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot? Some Empirical Evidence” — found that money made people happier, but only to a point.

Once certain essential needs were met, life satisfaction came at a diminishing return on income investment. In short, money couldn’t buy happiness.

Named the Easterlin paradox, the effect was a powerful demonstration of scientific methods applied to social and economic questions. (It was also controversial: Some researchers say Easterlin was mistaken, that better data shows a direct, continuing relationship between per capita income and individual happiness.)

The new study examines social attitudes in China, the poster nation of developing world capitalism and, from a sociological perspective, a giant experiment in accelerated growth.

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