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Patrick Lawrence: The Happiness of Others

For Americans, admitting that people in other parts of the world have and want different things from what they have and want can, in its subtle way, be devastating to their view of the world.
Chinese Lantern Festival at the Montreal Botanical Gardens, Canada. (ConstantineD, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

By Patrick Lawrence / Consortium News

George Burchett, an excellent painter and publisher of the People’s Information Bureau from his home base in Hanoi, sent me an interesting item the other day. 

It was a piece by Alex Lo, the iconoclastic columnist at the South China Morning Post, under the headline, “Contrary to Western myth, the Chinese are a rather jolly bunch.”

Lo cites two recent surveys indicating that, as his editors put it in the headline, Westerners have it all wrong when they assume, on the basis of official propaganda and incessant media reports, that the People’s Republic is a nation of 1.4 billion miserable, suffering, suppressed and repressed people under the authoritarian leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the dictatorial Xi Jinping.

I am natively suspicious of statistical surveys conducted by incurable technocrats who purport to measure in columns of numbers matters that are far too subjective to be measured. But setting this aside, Lo and Burchett (offspring of Wilfred Burchett, the celebrated correspondent of the Cold War decades) are onto something.

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It is highly important that we in the West understand the Chinese to be unhappy. It follows that surveys indicating otherwise are correspondingly significant. 

When he who controls “the narrative” has the power to control entire populations, perception management becomes the blackest of all the black arts. How jarring it is even to suspect that the Chinese may by and large be happy — or contented, a more enduring state.

One of the surveys Lo cites was completed just last month by Ipsos, a prominent market research firm with head offices in Paris. Ipsos conducted Global Happiness 2023 in 32 countries, a good spread across continents, levels of development, forms of government and so on. It includes enough bar charts, line graphs, and numbers, numbers, numbers to make the most bloodless of technocrats happy all by himself or herself.

And what do you know? China comes in with a top rating of 91 percent in the overall happiness index. To choose a few other nations by way of comparison, Mexico scores 81 percent, the U.S. 76 percent, Japan and Poland register 60 percent and 58 percent respectively. 

What is more, a chronological chart indicates that China’s score has increased by 12 percentage points since 2011, despite a downward blip during the Covid–19 pandemic.

“Anyone who has ever lived in or visited China for an extended period — except during the pandemic lockdowns — would not be at all surprised,” Lo writes. “But if you are a stay-at-home kind of person and read only The Wall Street Journal and watch the BBC to get your news, you must think that’s all state-controlled propaganda.”

People practicing T’ai Chi in Haikou People’s Park, Haikou City, Hainan Province, China, 2012.  (Anna Frodesiak, CC0, Wikimedia Commons)

Usefully enough, Edelman, the Chicago public relations firm, has just produced another such report. Its 2023 Trust Barometer surveyed 28 nations last November and came up with roughly similar results by way of China’s scores relative to others. 

Here’s something interesting to ponder: Respondents in 24 of the 28 nations surveyed scored record lows in response to the statement, “My family and I will be better off in five years.” China was the only one to show an uptick in expectations since the previous survey, a modest 1 percent gain.  

Case of Global Gloom 

Unlike the Ipsos survey, which presents its data without a great deal of interpolation, the Edelman report presents a case of global gloom. To give you a taste of the thing, sections are headed, “4 Forces that Lead to Polarization,” “Economic Optimism Collapses,” “Facing Economic Fears without a Trust Safety Net” and “Personal Anxieties on Par with Existential Fears.”

I wonder about these section headings. What kind of societies suffer these sorts of uncertainties, and why does China appear to be, in relative terms, immune to them?

It is the season of happiness surveys, it seems.

The U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network has just released its World Happiness Report 2023. This is a big banana, a global survey with all sorts of plug-ins and mechanisms to let you make an infinite number of comparisons, one nation to another or to the whole. It is timed to the General Assembly’s Resolution 66/281, which deems March 20 International Day of Happiness.

Have we all lost our minds to some obsession with human happiness? Do we propose to pin it down as if it were a butterfly? Do we all want to move to Bhutan, with its famous Gross National Happiness measure? Does this preoccupation — my strong suspicion —actually reflect widespread unhappiness among many populations? Maybe we should ask Britain’s Minister of Loneliness.  

These technocrats should read their Tennessee Williams, who understood in the course of his anguished life, as we all should, that happiness is fleeting and cannot be captured. “I have been very happy lately,” he once wrote in his journal, “knowing it will not last very long…. We must have long fingers and catch at whatever we can while it is passing near us.”

Put this thought against the preface of the U.N. report. “There is a growing consensus about how happiness should be measured,” it states with bold, number-crunching confidence. “This consensus means that national happiness can now become an operational objective for governments.”

These people are either blind or asleep or they work on too-high a floor at the U.N. Secretariat and suffer from altitude sickness.

Do the authors of this report seriously think, amid America’s thrashing efforts to defend its imperium by dividing the world into blocs, with power the one and only preoccupation and neoliberal market fundamentalism the imperative, that someone such as President Joe Biden — just to choose a name at random — is going to make the happiness of Americans a higher priority than sending Abrams M–1 battle tanks to Ukraine or provoking the Chinese into open conflict?

Happiness Metrics 

I’m starting to wonder whether happiness is about to be “weaponized,” a word I detest but there it is, so as to deploy it as another arrow in the quivers of Western propagandists. And I am starting to wonder whether all these statistics indicate that those nations concerned not with power put with an orderly world are by and large happier than those for which the pursuit of power is the driving force.

I do not trust the U.N. anymore in the same way I no longer have any regard for the European Union. I got off the E.U. bus when Frankfurt and Brussels screwed Greece in the name of bond investors back in 2015, after the Greeks rejected neoliberal austerity and said, yes, if this means leaving the euro we vote to do so.

The U.N., similarly, lost all track of its founding ideals who can say how many decades ago. Certainly, by the time I covered it for various third world magazines for a time back in the 1970s the U.S. had made a mess of it.

I bring this distrust to the World Happiness Report’s determinations of who is happy and who not. The Finns win the prize for the jolliest people on earth, as measured in the Average Life Evaluation section of Chapter 2. The Nordics, indeed, do well all around: Denmark is No. 2, Iceland No. 3, and Sweden and Norway Nos. 6 and 7. The U.S. is ranked the 15th happiest nation on earth, and no, thanks, I’m not in the market for bridges to Brooklyn.  

What of China, you are wondering. It comes in 64th in this ranking. This compares with Taiwan’s ranking at 27, and this is a telling breach: The U.N. has no business ranking Taiwan at all as it is not recognized as an independent nation.

I am no statistician and no demographer or any such expert, but I do find it remarkable that of the happiest nations by the U.N.’s reckoning the first several dozen are either Western or client states of the West or former Soviet republics or not very nice places that have abundant reserves of oil. You have to get to No. 40, Nicaragua, to find a nation on Washington’s enemies list that gets any kind of smile emoji from the U.N.

Reading these rankings, I am reminded of good old Freedom House, that Cold War dinosaur that used to rank the world’s nations by way of how free they were, and lo and behold America’s friends and allies always turned out to be free while its chosen adversaries always turned out to be unfree. And a nation could go from free to unfree, or the other way around, depending on year-to-year political events.

I detect a whiff of the same ideological determinism. The Ipsos and Edelman surveys, with which the World Happiness Report is at odds, have one virtue it is worth noting. These two firms serve corporations greatly interested in marketing things around the world. You don’t have to think about ideology when reading their reports, and you cannot say the same about the U.N.’s.

From the Cold War onward — or maybe onward from the Wilson administration in the early 20thcentury — Americans have been unable to register the happiness of any nation that does not live according to our ideology, our “values” — another word on my shit list — and altogether “the American way.” The impediment here is our belief in Wilsonian universalism: What we have everyone must want, and if they say they don’t want what we have we must teach them they are wrong and they will learn to want what we have.

Universalism, the pernicious cousin of exceptionalism, has never served America well. It is better to say we got away with it so long as our primacy remained unchallenged. Now it is challenged. Now people with different histories, cultures, and political traditions —none of which have Americans ever understood or respected — are emergent as powers in their own right. Now they come to say, often in remarkably explicit terms, “No, we don’t want what you have because we want what we have.”

If there are two things the 21st century demands of those who live during it, they are to see and hear others not as anyone else wants them to be but as they are and as they speak. While I cannot vouch for the dead-on accuracy of any of these surveys, to be seen and heard in this way is to my mind all the Chinese are asking of us.      

This is the problem with surveys such as Ipsos’s and Edelman’s — about which you are very unlikely to read anything unless you read publications such as the People’s Information Bureau (which is privately circulated) or columnists such as Alex Lo. Admitting that people who do not want what we have or to live as we live can be happy is in its subtle way devastating to our view of the world.

Let it be so: There is so very much about our worldview that must be devastated if we are to get anywhere in the 21st century worth getting to.

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Patrick Lawrence
Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon siteHis Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored without explanation.

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