Social Indicators Research

, Volume 117, Issue 1, pp 145–164 | Cite as

They Are Richer But Are They Happier? Subjective Well-Being of Chinese Citizens Across the Reform Era

  • Zhilin TangEmail author


This study examined Chinese’s subjective well-being (SWB) in the past two decades. By capitalizing on the single time-series data available on SWB in China during the reform era (spanning for nearly two decades) and adopting a newly-developed cross-classified random effects model that can disentangle the confounding effects of age, period and birth cohorts, this analysis detects significant age and period effect. First, Chinese exhibits a curvilinear and concave relation between age and life satisfaction. Secondly, economic prosperity in the past decades did not translate into greater satisfaction with life among Chinese people. Significant period effect reveals a V-shape pattern of life satisfaction: the declining trend has continued throughout the 1990s and the beginning of the millennium. By 2007 (the most recently available), the life satisfaction of Chinese people has rebounded to some extent, albeit still considerably lower than in 1990. Subsequently, in search of explanations for this overall trend of plummeted subjective well-being among Chinese citizens over time, whether and how the rising inequality asserts its influence on SWB in China’s context are tested and discussed.


Subjective well-being Age-period-cohort cross-classified random effect model China 


  1. Ahuvia, A., & Wong, N. (1995). Materialism: origins and implications for personal well-being. In F. Hansen (Ed.), European advances in consumer research (Vol. 2, pp. 172–178). Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research.Google Scholar
  2. Ahuvia, A. C., & Wong, N. (2002). Personality and Values Based Materialism: Their Relationship and Origins. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 12, 389–402.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Alesina, A., Di Tella, R., & MacCulloch, R. (2004). Inequality and happiness: Are Europeans and Americans different? Journal of Public Economics, 88, 2009–2042.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Andrews, F. M., & Withey, S. B. (1976). Social indicators of well-being. New York: Plenum.Google Scholar
  5. Appleton, S., & Song, L. (2008). Life satisfaction in Urban China: Components and determinants. World Development, 36, 2325–2340.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Belk, R. W. (1985). Materialism: Trait aspects of living in the material world. Journal of Consumer Research, 28, 265–280.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Benabou, R., & Ok, E. (1998). Social mobility and the demand for redistribution: The POUM hypothesis. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.Google Scholar
  8. Berridge, K. C. (1996). Food reward: Brain substrates of wanting and liking. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 20, 1–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bian, Y. (1994). Work and inequality in Urban China. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.Google Scholar
  10. Bian, Y., & Logan, J. W. (1996). Market transition and income inequality in urban China. American Sociological Review, 61, 759–778.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bian, Y., & Zhang, Zhanxin. (2002). Marketization and income distribution in urban China, 1988 and 1995. The Future of Market Transition, 19, 377–415.Google Scholar
  12. Brickman, P., & Campbell, D. T. (1971). Hedonic relativism and planning the food society. In M. H. Appley (Ed.), Adaptation-level theory (pp. 287–305). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  13. Campbell, A., Converse, P. E., & Rogers, W. L. (1976). The quality of American life. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  14. Cantril, H. (1965). The pattern of human concern. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Carstensen, L. L., Isaacowitz, D. M., & Charles, S. T. (1999). Taking Time seriously: A theory of socioemotional selectivity. American Psychologist, 54, 165–181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Chen, J., Dai, D., Ming, P., Wenxuan, H., & Qiaobin, F. (2010). The trend of the Gini coefficient of China. The University of Machester: Brooks World Poverty Institute.Google Scholar
  17. Cheng, S.-T. (2004). Age and subjective well-being revisited: A discrepancy perspective. Psychology and Aging, 19, 409–415.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Clark, A. E. (2003). Inequality-aversion and income mobility: A direct test, Working paper, Delta, Paris.Google Scholar
  19. Cross, S., & Markus, H. (1991). Possible Selves across the Life Span. Human Development, 34, 230–255.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Dickson, B. (1997). Democratization in China and Taiwan: The adaptability of Leninist parties. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Dickson, B. (2003). Red capitalists in China. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Diener, Ed. (1984). Subjective well-being. Psychological Bulletin, 95, 542–575.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Diener, E. (2006). Guidelines for national indicators of subjective well-being and Ill-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 397–404.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Diener, Ed., & Diener, Carol. (1995). The wealth of nations revisited: Income and the quality of life. Social Indicators Research, 36, 275–286.Google Scholar
  25. Diener, E., & Suh, E. (1997). Measuring quality of life: economic, social and subjective indicators. Social Indicators Research, 40, 189–216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Diener, E., Sandvik, E., Seidlitz, L., & Diener, M. (1993). The relationship between income and subjective well-being: Relative or absolute? Social Indicators Research, 28, 195–223.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Diener, E., Diener, M., & Diener, C. (1995). Factors predicting the subjective well-being of nations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 851–864.Google Scholar
  28. Diener, E., Oishi, S., & Lucas, R. (2003). Personality, culture and subjective well-being: Emotional and cognitive evaluation of life. Annual Review of Psychology, 81, 869–885.Google Scholar
  29. Dynan, K., & Ravin, E. (2007). Increasing income inequality, external habits, and self-reported happiness. The American Economic Review, 97, 226–231.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Easterlin, R. A. (1974). Does economic growth improve the human lot? Some empirical evidence. In P. A. Davis & W. R. Melvin (Eds.), Nations and households in economic growth (pp. 98–125). Paolo Alto: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Easterlin, R. A. (1995). Will raising the income of all increase the happiness of all? Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 27, 35–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Easterlin, Richard. A. (2001). Income and Happiness: Towards a Unified Theory. Economic Journal, 111, 465–484.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Easterlin, Richard. A. (2003). Explaining Happiness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100, 11176–11183.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Easterlin, Richard. (2009). Lost in Transition: Life Satisfaction on the Road to Capitalism. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 130, 130–145.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Easterlin, R. A., Morgan, R., & Switek, M. (2012). China’ Life Satisfaction: 1990–2010. Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109, 9775–9780.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Eggers, A., Gaddy, C., & Graham, C. (2006). Unemployment and Well-being in Russia in the 1990’s: Can Society’s Suffering be Individuals’ Solace? Journal of Socio-Economics, 35, 209–242.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Falkenberg, A. W. (1998). Quality of Life: Efficiency, Equity and Freedom in United States and Scandinavia. Journal of Socio-Economics, 27, 1–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Frank, R. (1997). The Frame of Reference as a Public Good. Economic Journal, 107, 1832–1847.Google Scholar
  39. George, L. K. 1981. “Subjective well-being: Conceptual and methodological issues.” Pp. 345-382 in Annual Review of gerontology and geriatrics, edited by C. Eisdorfer. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  40. George, L. K. 2006. Perceived Quality of Life, Edited by R. Binstok and L. K. George. San Diego, CA: Elsevier.Google Scholar
  41. Glenn, Norval D. 1983. Cohort Analysis: A Sage University Paper.Google Scholar
  42. Griffin, K., & Zhao, Renwei. (1992). The distribution of income in China. New York: Martin’s Press.Google Scholar
  43. Hagerty, M. (2000). Social comparisons of income in one’s community: Evidence from national surveys of income and happiness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 764–771.Google Scholar
  44. Heady, B., & Wearing, A. (1991). Subjective well-being: A stocks and flows framework. In F. Strack, M. Argyle, & N. Schawarz (Eds.), Subjective well-being: An interdisciplinary perspective. Oxford: Pergamon Press.Google Scholar
  45. Hox, J. J., & IKreft, I. G. (1994). Multilevel analysis methods. Sociological Methods and Research in Human Development, 22, 283–299.Google Scholar
  46. Inglehart, R., Foa, R., Peterson, C., & Wetzel, C. (2008). Development, freedom and rising happiness: A global perspective (1981–2007). Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 264–285.Google Scholar
  47. Ji, J., Xiaohe, X., & Lynne Rich, S. (2002). Determinants of family life satisfaction in reforming Urban China. International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 43, 169–191.Google Scholar
  48. Kasser, T., & Ahuvia, A. (2002). Materialistic values and well-being in business students. European Journal of Social Psychology, 32, 137–146.Google Scholar
  49. Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (1993). A Dark side of the American dream: Correlates of financial success as a central life aspiration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 410–422.Google Scholar
  50. Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (1996). Further examining the American dream: Differential correlates of intrinsic and extrinsic goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 280–287.Google Scholar
  51. Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (2001). Be careful what you wish for: Optimal functioning and the relative attainment of intrinsic and extrinsic goals. In K. M. Sheldon (Ed.), Schmuck P (pp. 116–131). Kirkland, WA: Life goals and well-being. towards a positive psychology of human striving. Hogrefe and Huber.Google Scholar
  52. Khan, A. R., Griffin, K., Riskin, C., & Zhao, R. (1992). Household income and its distribution in China. The China Quarterly, 132, 1029–1061.Google Scholar
  53. Klein, L. R., & O’zmucur, S. (2002). The estimation of China’s economic growth rate. Journal of Economic and Social Measurement, 28, 187–202.Google Scholar
  54. Kozma, N., Stones, M. J., & McNeil, J. K. (1991). Psychological well-being in later life. Toronto, ON: Butterworth.Google Scholar
  55. Liao, P.-S., Yang-Chih, F., & Yi, C.-C. (2005). Perceived quality of life in taiwan and hongkong: An intra-cultural comparison. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6, 43–67.Google Scholar
  56. Luttmer, E. F. P. (2004). Neighbors as negatives: Relative earnings and well-being. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.Google Scholar
  57. Mannheim, K. (1952). The sociological problems of generations. In P. Kecskemati (Ed.), Essays on sociology of knowledge (pp. 276–322). Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  58. Mirowsky, J., & Ross, C. E. (2003). Social causes and psychological distress. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine De Gruyter.Google Scholar
  59. Mortimer, J., & Shanahan, M. J. (2006). Handbook of the life course. New York: Springer Science and Business Media.Google Scholar
  60. Nee, V. (1989). A theory of market transition: From redistribution to markets in state socialism. American Sociological Review, 53, 663–681.Google Scholar
  61. Nee, V. (1991). Social inequalities in reforming state socialism: Between redistribution and markets in state socialism. American Sociological Review, 56, 267–282.Google Scholar
  62. Nee, V. (1996). The emergence of a market society: Changing mechanisms of stratification in China. American Journal of Sociology, 101, 908–949.Google Scholar
  63. Nee, V., & Stark, D. (1989). Remaking the economic institutions of socialism: China and Eastern Europe. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Pres.Google Scholar
  64. Nee, V., & Su, S. (1996). Institutions, social ties and commitment in China’s corporatist transformation. In J. McMillan & B. Naughton (Eds.), Remaking Asian economics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  65. Oishi, S., Diener, E., Lucas, R., & Suh, E. M. (1999). Cross-cultural variations in predictors of life satisfaction: Perspectives from needs and values. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 25, 980–990.Google Scholar
  66. Oshio, T., & Kobayashi, M. (2010). Income inequality, perceived happiness, and self-rated health: Evidence from nationwide surveys in Japan. Social Science and Medicine, 30, 1–9.Google Scholar
  67. Oswald, A. J. (1997). Happiness and economic performance. Economic Journal, 107, 1815–1831.Google Scholar
  68. Peterson, C., Park, N., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: The full life versus the empty life. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6, 25–41.Google Scholar
  69. Piketty, Thomas. (1995). Social mobility and redistributive politics. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 110, 551–584.Google Scholar
  70. Pinquart, M., & Sorensen, S. (2000). Influences of socioeconomic status, social network, and competence on subjective well-being in later life: A meta-analysis. Psychology and Aging, 15, 187–224.Google Scholar
  71. Rampichini, C., & D’Andrea, S. S. (1997). A hierarchical ordinal probit model for the analysis of life satisfaction in Italy. Social Indicators Research, 44, 41–69.Google Scholar
  72. Raudenbush, S. W., & Bryk, A. S. (2002). Hierarchical linear models: Applications and data analysis methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  73. Ravallion, M., & Chen, S. (2007). China’s (uneven) progress against poverty. Journal of Development Economics, 82, 1–42.Google Scholar
  74. Richins, M. L., & Dawson, S. (1992). A consumer values orientation for materialism and its measurement: Scale development and validation. Journal of Consumer Research, 19, 303–316.Google Scholar
  75. Ryder, N. B. (1965). The cohort as a concept in the study of social change. American Sociological Review, 30, 843–861.Google Scholar
  76. Ryff, C. D. (1991). Possible selves in adulthood and old age: A tale of shifting horizons. Psychology and Aging, 6, 286–295.Google Scholar
  77. Sanfey, P., & Teksoz, U. (2007). Does transition make you happy? Economics of Transition, 15, 707–731.Google Scholar
  78. Senik, C. (2004). When information dominates comparison. Learning from Russian subjective panel data. Journal of Public Economics, 88, 2099–2133.Google Scholar
  79. Shinn, D. C. (1986). Education and quality of life in Korea and the United States: A cross-cultural perspective. Public Opinion Quarterly, 50, 360–370.Google Scholar
  80. Shu, X., & Bian, Y. (2003). Market transition and gender gap in earnings in Urban China. Social Forces, 81, 1107–1145.Google Scholar
  81. Shu, X., & Zhu, Y. (2009). The quality of life in China. Social Indicator Research, 92, 191–225.Google Scholar
  82. Shyns, P. (1998). Crossnational differences in happiness: Economic and cultural factors explored. Social Indicators Research, 43, 3–26.Google Scholar
  83. Sirgy, M. J. (1997). Materialism and quality of life. Social Indicators Research, 43, 227–260.Google Scholar
  84. Stevenson, B., & Wolfers, J. (2008). Happiness inequality in the United States. Journal of Legal Studies, 37, S33–S79.Google Scholar
  85. Tang, W., & Parish, W. L. (2000). Chinese Urban life under reform: The changing social contract. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  86. Thompson, J. E., & Thompson, H. O. (1990). Values: Directional signals for life choices. Neonatal Network, 8, 77–79.Google Scholar
  87. Thurow, L. (1971). The income distribution as a pure public good. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 83, 327.Google Scholar
  88. Tomes, N. (1986). Income distribution, happiness, and satisfaction: A direct test of the interdependent preference model. Journal of Economic Psychology, 7, 425–446.Google Scholar
  89. Veenhoven, R. (1993). Happiness in nations. Risbo, Rotterdam: The Netherlands.Google Scholar
  90. Veenhoven, R. (1991). Is happiness relative? Social Indicators Research, 24, 1–34.Google Scholar
  91. Veenhoven, R. (1996). Happy life expectancy: A comparative measure of quality of life in nations. Social Indicators Research, 39, 1–58.Google Scholar
  92. Veenhoven, R. (1997). Quality of life in individualistic society. In M.-J. DeJong & A. C. Aijderveld (Eds.), The gift of society (pp. 149–170). The Netherlands: Enzo Press.Google Scholar
  93. Veenhoven, R., & Ehrhardt, Joop. (1995). The cross-national pattern of happiness: Test of predictions implied in three theories of happiness. Social Indicators Research, 34, 33–68.Google Scholar
  94. Wang, S. (1995). Private time and politics: Changes in the leisure activities among city residents. Chinese Social Science Quarterly (Chinese), 15, 108–125. Google Scholar
  95. Wang, Z. (2005). Before the emergence of critical citizens: economic development and political trust in China. International Review of Sociology, 15, 155–171.Google Scholar
  96. Wei, R., & Pan, Z. (1999). Mass media and consumerist values in the People’s Republic of China. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 11, 75–95.Google Scholar
  97. Whitbourne, S. K. (1985). The psychological construction of the life span. In J. E. Birren & W. K. Schaie (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of aging (pp. 594–618). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.Google Scholar
  98. Wooldridge, J. M. (2002). Econometric analysis on cross section and panel data. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  99. Wu, X., & Xie, Yu. (2003). Does the market pay off? Earnings returns to education in Urban China. American Sociological Review, 68, 425–442.Google Scholar
  100. Yang, Y. (2008). Social inequalities in happiness in the United States, 1972 to 2004: An age-period-cohort analysis. American Sociological Review, 73, 204–226.Google Scholar
  101. Yang, Y., & Land, K. C. (2006). A mixed models approach to the age-period-cohort analysis of repeated cross-section surveys, with an application to data on trends in verbal test scores. Sociological Methodology, 36, 75–97.Google Scholar
  102. Yang, Y., & Land, K. C. (2008). Age-period-cohort analysis of repeated cross-section surveys: Fixed or random effects? Sociological Methods & Research, 36, 297–326.Google Scholar
  103. Yitzhaki, S. (1979). Relative deprivation and the Gini coefficient. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 93, 321–324.Google Scholar
  104. Yu, W.-H. (2008). The psychological cost of market transition: mental health disparities in reform-era China. Social Problems, 55, 347–369.Google Scholar
  105. Zhou, X. (2000). Economic transformation and income inequality in Urban China: Evidence from panel data. The American Journal of Sociology, 105, 1135–1174.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Community HealthUniversity of California at Los AngelesLos AngelesUSA

Personalised recommendations