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UPDATED: December-18-2006 NO.43 OCT.26, 2006
Can Society's Happiness Be Measured by a Set of Figures?

Knowing if you're happy could soon be easier than you think in China. The government department responsible for statistics has planned to issue an official "happiness index," which reportedly will measure the level of people's well being by a set of figures.

The National Bureau of Statistics announced in September that in the future China is to add a happiness index to the country's categories of statistics, as well as a people's overall development index, regional innovation index and social harmony index.

Generally speaking, the happiness index measures how people feel about the current situation of their life and development. However, this index actually covers more than this, as it also touches on the external living environment and the conditions for individual development. The happiness index rises in proportion to the improvement of people's incomes. Therefore, the government has a lot to do. For example, an efficient social security system that relieves the heavy burden of health care, education and housing, while leaving enough disposable income for people to feel happy, will cause the happiness index to rise as a result.

Those who support the introduction of a happiness index believe that indexes like GDP lay too much emphasis on economic development, and thus are unable to fully reflect the pulse of society. The overemphasis on the economy also affects the government's choice of policies. A happiness index, however, is a more individual-based index, which is capable of reflecting the truth and also gives priority to the improvement of people's lives.

At the same time, critics point out that the happiness index will do nothing tangible to make people happy, but will inevitably be used by some local governments to show off their achievements in economic development. If the statistics department is really interested in people's living conditions and hopes to provide useful material for decision makers, they should try to learn more about the reality of people's life and offer more substantive indexes, they say.

Social management tool

Xing Zhanjun (professor at the Party School of Shandong Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China): As an index to see whether society is in fine spirits, the happiness index can serve as a means of diagnosing the problems in social development. For example, if the happiness index keeps falling despite the fast growing economy, the overall social development model must be questioned. It sometimes happens that when material wealth is snowballing, the majority of people in society lose their belief in values and have little faith in their future well being. In addition, despite rapid economic growth, the imbalances in various social aspects erode the public's trust and support for the country's ruling party, resulting in social turbulence that hence hampers further social progress.

In China, the fundamental interest of the vast majority of the people is the ultimate goal of policymakers. It is also the basis for policymakers to ensure people are satisfied with the changes being made during reform. In this sense, the happiness index, which is used to reflect the degree of people's satisfaction, is an important reference when decision makers decide what policies to adopt.

Liu Yikun ( When the basic living standard is met, the ultimate objective for social development is not to create as much wealth as possible, but to maximize people's happiness. As China has reached a certain degree of economic prosperity, social development should not be simply understood as economic growth, but should be seen as a kind of coordinated economic, environmental, cultural improvement. This is the only development model that conforms to a "human-centered" concept. The happiness index is able to reflect such development in an all-round way. The change of focus from GDP growth to the well being of society is a reflection of the change in governance-a requirement for the building of a harmonious society.

The happiness index in its current stage is still an immature measurement, and needs refinement. It must cover all the factors that may affect people's subjective feeling of happiness and also China's cultural background and socioeconomic development level. It must be pointed out that if the new measurement is not carefully designed, statistics will fail to reflect the truth about people's lives.

Zhu Dazhi (Chengdu Evening News): With social progress, the international community's understanding of human development is undergoing gradual changes. Development strategies in various countries no longer focus solely on economic growth, but pay more attention to the improvement of people's well being. In China, the objective of a harmonious society and the efforts to achieve this goal are in line with this trend.

In some sense, happiness is a feeling that is difficult to measure. However, from the perspective of social management, the degree of happiness is measurable.

The fact that China is going to include a happiness index and social harmony index in the official statistics reveals that the Chinese Government has realized the importance of the coordinated development between the economy, society, nature and people-a key measure to build a harmonious society.

Ma Hongman (Oriental Morning Post): A happiness index tells us that to promote economic development and GDP growth is not the ultimate goal of a government, but only a kind of means to realize harmonious social development and to improve people's well being.

Nevertheless, although a happiness index appears to be a new reference for decision makers to make economic policies, to maximize people's happiness is not the goal. The feeling of happiness is based on every individual and it provides guides to people on how to lead a life so that they will feel satisfied with that life. As people have different demands for their living standard, a happiness index can only be used as a tool to discover problems, but never to solve them.

Therefore, to adjust policies by analyzing problems reflected by a happiness index, so as to push forward the overall development of society, is where the significance of the index lies.

Statistics cannot express feeling

Zhou Zhinan ( A nationwide survey of 12 aspects of urban residents' lives, issued in September this year, reveals that housing prices, public security and employment remain the three areas people feel most unhappy with.

Rocketing house prices, poor public security and the lack of employment opportunities can be regarded as "misery indexes." Some local governments keen on governance achievements will see the happiness index as a way to blow their own trumpets, but from the perspective of the improvement of people's living standards, a misery index seems more useful than happiness index.

For a government that stresses people's living standards, what it should try to find out is not its successes or achievements, but its deficiencies in governance. The significance of a misery index is that it is able to directly point to those deficiencies. If GDP or a so-called happiness index is used as the measurement, perhaps they will always produce good news, but these indexes are only part of the reality, as they miss the key statistics that governments depend on to improve people's living conditions.

In the process of creating a happy life for its people, the government should keep the practice of self-reflection and a misery index can be the most valuable reference. A responsible local government will never refuse to adopt this index because of its possible damage by loss of face.

Deng Qingbo (Nanfang Daily): When a happiness index has become a tool for government departments to measure their performance, it may lose its original function. As well, when there is still no consensus on what happiness really is, the happiness index may become another set of GDP statistics, unable to bring real benefits to the people.

I'd like to suggest to the statistics bureau more practical indexes like the tax misery index, medical misery index and education misery index.

The 2005 Tax Misery Index issued by Forbes magazine reveals that China ranks the second in terms of this index among the 52 countries and regions covered in the magazine's survey. The rationality of this index is questioned by some scholars both at home and abroad. Therefore, the National Bureau of Statistics should produce statistics concerning taxation to show whether the Chinese are really struggling under these heavy burdens.

As far as the government is concerned, knowing what makes the people unhappy and what they really need is more important than to collect statistics about happiness.

Shan Shibing (Chinese Business View): No one can deny that a happiness index is favored not only because of its value to show officials' achievements in governance, but also it can help to attract more residents or investment to a certain area. Just as a list of most recognized brands is able to bring manufacturers more profits, a high happiness index will win local governments and officials more prestige.

As happiness is a subjective feeling, the figures in a happiness index are thus likely to fail in reflecting the true feeling of the people. In this case, a high index will please local officials more than it does local people. How ironic! When local governments start to compete for a high ranking in the happiness index list, the Central Government must try to prevent their obsession with the happiness index from replacing their obsession with a high GDP ranking.

Cao Lin (Chengdu Business News): When the authenticity of existing statistics is still a problem, who can promise that new indexes won't become a tool for officials to show off their achievements? We must keep in mind that, compared with GDP, such indexes as happiness, harmony and satisfaction are all based on subjective feeling, which can be faked.

Besides, everyone has their own understanding of what happiness is. To some, a high income, stable job and good living environment may not necessarily mean happiness. It worries me that when people do not feel happy, the happiness index figures used to show officials' administrative performance may appear high. Under the authority's happiness index system people would be deprived of the right to express their misery. Those who actually feel miserable or unfortunate are forced to celebrate the so-called happiness with the government. If that happens, these statistics will hurt people more seriously than the fake figures of GDP.

To measure people's individual feeling with a set of figures is not a wise practice, because figures are likely to distort the truth. As economic growth index will sometimes encourage officials to falsify figures, the same is true with all kinds of indexes. It is suggested that people's subjective feeling be expressed in their own way.

Another problem is why the happiness index is included in official statistics? If the government really respects people's feeling of happiness and harmony and means to provide better living conditions for the people, the criteria for a happiness index should be left to the people. For example, a system that allows the public to vote for the officials they like and against those who they don't like may be set up. Only the people know whether they are really happy or not and whether local government officials are doing a good job or not. A set of figures are unable to describe or reflect such objective feeling. 

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