- The Chinese Pursuit of Happiness. Anxieties, Hopes, and Moral Tensions in Everyday Life ed. by Becky Yang Hsu and Richard Madsen
It is difficult to escape happiness these days. The term has wiggled its way into popular, corporate, and political discourse with a persistence that has become predictable. Few are the workshops—for academics, managers, and students—that do not reference the h-word, not to speak of the many shelves in bookstores all over the world, including China, that promise ways and formulas to achieve a happier life. Those professing to have the answers, mostly arrived through quantitative data analysis relying on psychology or economics, are the same people who have told us for centuries how to live our lives, namely middle-aged White men, many of them Americans.
Happiness as the telos of human existence has been debated since Aristotle, of course, but happiness as subject of scientific and academic investigation has only really appeared in the last twenty years. Attention to happiness surged with the publication of the first World Happiness Report in 2012 in support of the United Nations High Level Meeting on Happiness and Well-Being of the same year. The meeting itself followed a proposal by the Prime Minister of Bhutan, that countries measure the happiness of their people and use this information to help guide their public policies (Helliwell et al. 2015, p. 3). There have since been six further reports, the latest published in March 2019. The centerpiece of these reports, and the one aspect of this complex research reported in the media, is the happiness "league-table" that ranks countries according to their populations' happiness. Wealthy northern European countries have dominated the top end of the league table while China has consistently occupied a middling position, with a slide down to 93 (of 156 countries) in 2019.
The main conundrum for scientists eager to measure our emotions has always been the fact that it is difficult to get away from relying on people's self-reporting when asking them how happy they are. Despite advances in neuroscience that purport to show that happiness, as an emotion, is not a subjective feeling but objectively verifiable through a variety of biological and neuroscientific factors, there is no getting away from self-reporting and hence the use of language when asking people to fill in questionnaires. It is here where skepticism surfaces. Do all languages have an equivalent term to the English word "happy" in all its facets? The answer to this will depend on what school of thought one subscribes to in relation to the nature of language itself. This new volume on the Chinese pursuit of happiness, edited by Becky Yang Hsu and Richard Madsen, both sociologists working on China, states from the outset that the English term happiness is inadequate for encompassing how people around [End Page 166] the world feel about a good life. As a research team, they strove to design a more adequate survey aimed at a Chinese middle-class population. They chose the term "blessed happiness" to render the complex meanings of the Chinese characters fu, so ubiquitous in Chinese popular culture (as well as Chinese state propaganda). This volume only partly reports on the findings of the survey (which will be published in more detail in a separate monograph), but mostly builds on ethnographic fieldwork conducted by the editors and their collaborators.
In its Introduction, Becky Yang Hsu explains the rationale of the project and describes the "blessed happiness survey" that distinguishes itself from other happiness surveys in four ways: social contact questions, emphasis on behavior rather than opinion, its consideration of three aspects of happiness, and its interest in details of participation in rituals remembering the deceased (p. 9). No results are presented in the volume or its Introduction, but the description of the survey design serves as an illustration of the authors' approach to happiness in the Chinese context, making a...