"Many Chinese say, 'Twenty years ago, I would never have dreamed I could eat meat every other day,' " says Yip. "But they have other worries now." Families, long the core of Chinese society, are breaking apart as millions of mostly young adults migrate from rural areas to cities in search of work. Social relationships are changing; consumer expectations are rising. Socioeconomic disparities are rapidly emerging, even within small villages, and sources of security, such as health insurance and pensions, are limited or non-existent. According to Western research, such variables are important determinants of well-being. Yip asks: If the goal is improving people's welfare, "Is income growth the only way to do it?"
Yip doesn't think so. She and a team of economists, anthropologists, psychologists, and sociologists are documenting the consequences of China's shift to a market economy on the rural Chinese, who earn less than U.S. $350 a year. Their data could help identify policies to cushion against negative side effects of economic reform on people's well-being--an important goal, Yip says, not least because discontent can threaten social and political stability.
Survey respondents ranked themselves on a "social-standing ladder," marking their place relative to others in the community. People who compared themselves to urbanites ranked themselves lower than those who compared themselves to their fellow villagers, despite higher absolute income, Yip reports. For people who see themselves slipping down the ladder compared to better-off neighbors, well-being is declining. Yip says China's leaders may find in the data incentives to narrow the gaps between "haves" and "have-nots."
Last summer, with funding from the National Science Foundation, Yip returned to China to study the effect of villagers' migration on the well-being of those left behind. This time, she employed a new well-being measurement tool developed by a collaborator, Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman, called the Day Reconstruction Method (DRM). Based on the economist Jeremy Bentham's concept of utility, DRM asks people to reconstruct a typical day's activities and report feelings associated with each. Yip is particularly eager to analyze DRM data from the elderly, whose adult children increasingly are moving to urban areas, leaving their parents to fend for themselves as well as young grandchildren. "In China, few have pensions; old people have traditionally relied on their children," Yip explains. Poor, overworked, and in poor health, many complain of loneliness and depression.
A MUSHROOMING FIELD
The integration of psychology into economics "has gone from the margin to a lot of people interested," Graham says. In 2002, Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his contributions to the field. And in a 2004 paper, two leading U.S. psychologists proposed creating a "national well-being index" that goes beyond standard economic measures, which, they argue, neglect much of what society values. According to Graham, such an index "could be a complementary measure that would weigh into creating policy."
The well-being literature of Western societies suggests that income and material goods have little lasting effect on well-being, Yip says. The next step for rural China is to find out what will.
Photo: Rhodri Jones-PANOS
Katharine Dunn has written about science and health for Harvard Magazine, the Boston Globe, and Technology Review.
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