On Oct. 12, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, tweeted about an Ipsos survey on “the state of happiness in a COVID world.”
The survey results, published on Oct. 7, suggested that the Chinese were the happiest citizens of the 27 nations included. Ninety-three percent of the Chinese surveyed said they were happy, followed by 87 percent in the Netherlands and 80 percent in Saudi Arabia.
The tweet read "Ipsos survey: China, the happiness leader in 2020.”
The statement is misleading. Other reports, including the 2020 World Happiness Report, paint a very different picture for China.
Chinese might have various reasons to feel happy. As Dan Southerland wrote for Radio Free Asia in 2019, the country’s middle class has been growing along with people’s spending power. The country is becoming a leader in technological advancements, like artificial intelligence, and its economy has grown fivefold over the past 30 years.
This explains many of the sources of happiness from the Ipsos survey. It queried 29 measures of happiness – such as health, relationships, children, living conditions, safety and security, feeling in control one’s life, and the freedom to express beliefs and have material possessions.
China’s greatest source of happiness – cited by 42 percent of Chinese citizens Ipsos surveyed – was safety and security. Twenty-five percent said religious and spiritual well-being was their greatest source of happiness.
Ipsos is one of the world’s largest market research companies and has been running happiness surveys since 2011. This latest, paid for by Ipsos, was conducted from July 24 to Aug. 7, 2020, in 27 countries, with a sample of 1,000 or more people in each nation. In countries like mainland China, those surveyed were more urban, educated or affluent than the general population, said Nicolas Boyon, Ipsos’ senior vice president of public affairs.
Compared to 2019, the global average of people reporting they were happy has fallen by one point. The U.S. had a drop of nine points, but China has run counter to the trend: it is 11 points higher, according to Ipsos.
The World Happiness Report, first released in 2012, ranks more than 150 countries “by how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be, according to their evaluations of their own lives.” Its 2020 report, released in March, drew on data from the Gallup World Poll, as well as the World Values Survey and natural environmental data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The report has proven to be an “indispensable tool for policymakers looking to better understand what makes people happy and thereby to promote the well being of their citizenry,” said Jeffrey Sachs, a Columbia University professor and director of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, said in a news release. Sachs is one of the report's editors.
It ranks countries on six variables: GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom, social support and perception of corruption. In this report, happiness in China has been trending down, not up, and is far from the top.
China ranked 94 out of 153 countries – down from 93 in 2019 and 86 in 2018. Finland ranked No. 1 for the third year in a row, and none of the countries with the world’s largest economies made it to the top 10. The United States ranked 18 – down seven places from its highest ranking of 11th place, in 2012.
When it comes to social environments, studies have shown (here and here) that tolerance of outsider groups is strongly linked with happiness. Tolerant societies tend to improve choices and satisfaction for all citizens, meaning more people would report being happy when asked about it.
This year’s report is based on 2019 data. In an interview with The New York Times, Sachs spoke about the findings in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying: “It is likely to be the case that we will come through this better if we hold our social connections together … We can’t fight this epidemic just at the individual level. We need a lot of shared action.”
Over the past few years, China has come under scrutiny for its treatment of ethnic minorities. Its government insists the religious freedom of all ethnic groups are protected, including Uighurs, but as Polygraph.info and others have reported, there is abundant evidence of China’s extensive assimilation efforts, including detention camps, forced labor and other alleged abuses.
Al Jazeera reported in 2015 that China had banned civil servants, students and teachers in Xinjiang from fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. Four years later, Lijian Zhao, then deputy chief of mission at China’s Embassy in Islamabad, told the Voice of America the restrictions were partial, focused on Ramadan activities, and not a blanket ban.
“Restrictions are with the Communist Party members, who are atheists; government officials, who shall discharge their duties; and students who are with compulsory education and hard learning tasks,” Zhao contended.
Human rights groups continue to decry the treatment of Uighurs.
Yet on Sept. 27, Reuters reported that Chinese Premier Xi Jinping said happiness levels among all ethnic groups in Xinjiang region were rising, and that China planned to keep teaching a “correct" outlook on the country.
Xi also said it was necessary to guide “all ethnic groups on establishing a correct perspective on the country, history and nationality.” Human Rights Watch called the statement an effort to “to thwart investigations into a powerful government’s unrepentant human rights violations.”
The natural environment also helps explain China’s happiness ranking. As mentioned in the World Happiness Report, there are several ways in which nature can influence our happiness: direct impacts (based on the hypothesis that there is an instinctive connection between humans and nature or other living organisms, shaped by our “evolutionary origins”) and indirect impacts (by encouraging positive behaviors).
Nature, the report says, encourages practicing physical activity. It also improves mental well-being – such as reducing stress (here, here, here and here), increasing positive emotions (here and here) and restoring cognitive function.
Moreover, nature is free of environmental stressors, such as air and noise pollution, which are associated with higher stress levels and diseases.
In 2013, the Chinese government declared a "war on air pollution” and began implementing stricter policies to regulate the emission of fine particular matter (known as PM2.5). However, the country continues to be the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, and air quality levels in many parts of China fail to meet international standards.
A study published by The Lancet medical journal in August analyzed the effect of air pollution on Chinese deaths, disease burden and life expectancy. The authors found that ambient and household pollution had declined considerably in recent years, but that the concentration of fine particulates still exceed the World Health Organization air quality guidelines.
Now, the COVID-19 pandemic is starting to have an impact.
A July report by Imperial College, in partnership with the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the World Happiness Report, looked at people’s satisfaction in the midst of the pandemic, and collected weekly insights from 26 countries. More than 120,000 responses were collected April 24-June 14 to track changing behaviors and attitudes because of the virus.
Respondents in the report were asked to rate how satisfied they were with their current lives, on a scale of 0-10 (zero being the worse and 10 being the best). China’s average satisfaction score was 5.1 – the second to lowest score, just ahead of South Korea (4.9). In the report, China was represented by the “online population” (meaning those with access to the internet).
The U.S. average satisfaction was 6.3, and the global average was 6.1.
John F. Helliwell of the University of British Columbia, co-editor of the World Happiness Report, said in a press release: “The pandemic is affecting all aspects of life, making it especially valuable to have an overall umbrella measure of how life is going for those in different circumstances. The evidence on life satisfaction now available from this poll should aid the timely design of policies better able to rebuild the quality of life while keeping populations as safe as possible from the direct and indirect risks to life, livelihoods, health and happiness.”