In an increasingly diverse and divided China, experts cite a new key distinction: those who are burdened by the expectations of others, and those who follow their own paths.
HONG KONG—Two decades of breakneck economic growth have left Chinese society divided against itself, into rich and poor, urban and rural, old and young, with implications for the happiness of individuals and the country as a whole.
She Jixiang of the Yunnan Mental Health Center was one of the earliest Chinese psychoanalysts and psychotherapists, as China under the late reformer Deng Xiaoping emerged from Maoist isolationism and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
He said that while he saw no particular reason why having more money should necessarily lead to greater happiness and satisfaction, his many years of clinical experience have shown that richer people do feel happier than poor people in China.
"I think there's a difference between rich and poor, and countryside and city. If we are talking about what sort of people we get as patients, I think there are more poor people, actually," She said.
"They are naturally going to have more worries and anxieties as a result of the requirements that life puts upon them."
High property prices, healthcare costs, and school and university fees are all economic factors that increase the amount of pressure on the individual and affect overall happiness, She added.
A Beijing-based psychologist surnamed Ning said Chinese people's overall happiness has been affected in recent years by widespread impatience, an approach to goal-setting entirely geared to material wealth, and a need to compete and compare well with others.
"Most Chinese people today are focused on money, wealth, material gain," Ning said. "They think that as long as they can achieve that then everything will be fine. They get their entire sense of life satisfaction from economic success right now."
"If that goes, they have nothing to fall back on," he said.
A major schism in Chinese society now exists between the booming high-tech cities of China's eastern seaboard and the underdeveloped rural hinterland.
Recent studies of depression and suicide in China have revealed a unique social pattern: China is the only country in which the suicide rate for females is higher than for males.
Around 90 percent of Chinese women who end their own lives live in the countryside, where they have ready access to poisonous pesticides, and where, says She, they are oppressed under traditional family structures.
"I think one of the best indicators of happiness levels in the countryside as compared with the city is in the suicide rate, which is much higher in the countryside than it is in urban areas," She said.
But he added that if people are able to break out of rural life and venture into the big cities in search of work, further psychological problems await them.
"Someone who has grown up in the country and who has never been to the big city will, I believe, actually be a bit happier than their urban counterpart," he said. "There are not so many requirements attached to rural life. You don't need much to get by. They are more satisfied because there is less of a gap between what they desire and what they have."
"But when those same people go to the cities, they see rich people everywhere, and this boosts their expectations and desire for material gain and enjoyment of life. But someone from the countryside is unlikely to be able to realize such desires, which is a very painful state, and after that happiness becomes very elusive for them," he added.
Officials are satisfied
If rural women are the least happy people in China, then a series of recent surveys has shown government officials—the most empowered people in Chinese society—at the top of surveys of life satisfaction and well-being.
A poll in September 2007 for the Chinese-language Health magazine found that civil servants make up the happiest sector of Chinese society, followed by teachers and independent professionals.
And a recent Chinese Academy of Social Sciences survey found that government officials are the happiest, followed by intellectuals and upwardly mobile professionals including private entrepreneurs, independent professionals, and management-grade workers in foreign-invested companies.
Why are Chinese officials so happy?
"Well, political power is certainly a factor," She said. "But there are a lot of other benefits to the position, including opportunities for their children and access to resources that other people don't have."
In Western countries, doctors and lawyers are highly paid, he said. In China, this is also true, but professional standards are still struggling to meet the social challenges of the market economy.
"There is now a crisis of trust in Chinese society," She said. "The basic trust between people has been eroded. There is something of a crisis too between doctors and their patients...Sure, the salary is quite high, but doctors are not a very happy bunch of people."
Another major form of stress and social division, according to a number of interviewees, is China's generation gap: the difference in attitude between people born and raised in an era of cradle-to-grave socialism, and their children, who must make their way in today's highly competitive labor market.
While parents said they often struggled to find enough money to educate their children to give them the best possible start in life, in keeping with traditional Chinese values, children are increasingly at odds with their parents' world view.
China's young people, according to Ning, pursue goals of greater freedom, while their parents' generation is still influenced by traditional mores that dictate what direction they think their sons and daughters should take in life.
Ms. Wu, a white-collar worker in Beijing, said she rarely discussed career matters with her parents because of a gap in understanding between the generations. "I don't tend to talk to my parents about a problem at work because they are very unlikely to know how to handle it. I find it is better to sort it out by myself," she said.
Pressure on children
Meanwhile, the obsession with competition and success is already taking a psychological toll on the young and straining family relationships, She said.
"There are a lot of middle-income families putting too much pressure on their children, who go off the rails," he said.
"We are talking about the families of teachers, workers, policemen. Especially teachers. All the way through the kids' high-school years, the parents are pushing them to work harder and achieve more, and finally the kids can't take it any more and they start to have psychological problems."
Guo Xue'an, a laid-off worker from Yichun in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, waved goodbye to his young son, who can't find a job in his hometown and is off to the booming south to find work.
"We don't ask much in order to be happy," Guo said. "We want to be able to support ourselves in life. We want our kids to get a bit of education. That's enough...if our children can't get an education, then how can they live?" he said.
Yang Yushu, the proprietor of a privately owned restaurant in Beijing, agreed. "The two biggest problems faced by ordinary people in China these days is what to do if they get sick, and where to send their kids to school," he said.
Dreams of others
Meanwhile, psychologist Ning said the Chinese tendency to live one's entire life according to the goals and expectations of other people doesn't always lead to happiness.
"There are many aspects to happiness. One shouldn't impose too many fixed expectations on life. That way, if things aren't going very well for you in one area, often there is an opportunity to compensate in another area," he said, urging young people to resist sacrificing too much of themselves to conform to collective demands.
"Or you can take the chance to broaden your direction in life, and to deepen your understanding of what it means to be human. This is a much more complete realization of one's needs as an individual. Life is not just about material success, nor even just about feeling happy. There are many more aspects to it than that," he said.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Bai Fan. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.
Radio Free Asia