Social Indicators Research

, Volume 118, Issue 1, pp 235–246 | Cite as

Winding Road Toward the Chinese Dream: The U-shaped Relationship Between Income and Life Satisfaction Among Chinese Migrant Workers

  • Rongwei Chu
  • Henry Chiu HailEmail author


This study examines the relationship between income and subjective well-being among rural-to-urban migrant workers in China. Our analysis of a recent survey uncovered a U-shaped relationship between income and overall life satisfaction for migrant workers in Shanghai. Furthermore, the positive correlation is curvilinear, showing that increasing income yields diminishing returns. Drawing upon ethnographic literature concerning migrant workers, we suggest several possible explanations. For the poorest migrant workers, small increases in income are correlated with longer working hours and increased social comparison with their urban neighbors. After migrant workers’ income reaches a certain level, however, they are able to save money, giving them hope for future social mobility. Furthermore, migrant workers with disposable income can purchase status symbols, helping them to partially overcome their stigmatized status. The positive effect of income on life satisfaction eventually reaches a plateau, however, as even the wealthiest migrant workers find that they cannot surpass the limitations presented by their outsider identity and lack of an urban residence permit. Other findings include a negative relationship between income and income satisfaction and a positive relationship between education and income satisfaction. We conclude that the unique context surrounding Chinese migrant workers alters the typical effects of certain factors upon well-being and satisfaction.


Chinese migrant workers Income Subjective well-being Life satisfaction Social status 



The authors are grateful to the editor and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. The first author would also like to acknowledge the tremendous help provided by his colleagues at “The Society of Wei,” a discussion group composed of humanities, arts and social science scholars at Fudan University. The first author acknowledges financial support from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (70832001) and the National Social Science Foundation of China (13CSH071).


  1. Amit, K. (2010). Determinants of life satisfaction among immigrants from Western countries and from the FSU in Israel. Social Indicators Research, 96, 515–534.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Berry, R., & Williams, F. (1987). Assessing the relationship between quality of life and marital and income satisfaction: A path analytic approach. Journal of Marriage and Family, 49, 107–116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Biswas-Diener, R., & Diener, E. (2009). Making the best of a bad situation: Satisfaction in the slums of Calcutta. Culture and Well-Being: Social Indicators Research Series, 38, 261–278.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Chakravarti, D. (2006). Voices unheard: The psychology of consumption in poverty and development. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 16, 363–376.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Chang, L. T. (2009). Factory girls: From village to city in a changing China. Random House Digital, Inc.Google Scholar
  6. Crawford Solberg, E., Diener, E., Wirtz, D., Lucas, R. E., & Oishi, S. (2002). Wanting, having, and satisfaction: Examining the role of desire discrepancies in satisfaction with income. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 725–734.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cummins, R. A., Eckersley, R., Pallant, J., Van Vugt, J., & Misajon, R. A. (2003). Developing a national index of subjective wellbeing: The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index. Social Indicators Research, 64, 159–190.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Diener, E. (1984). Subjective well-being. Psychological Bulletin, 95, 542–575.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Diener, E., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2002). Will money increase subjective well-being? Social Indicators Research, 57, 119–169.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 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
  11. Diener, E., & Suh, M. E. (1998). Subjective well-being and age: An international analysis. Annual Review of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 17, 304–324.Google Scholar
  12. Diener, E., Suh, E. M., Lucas, R. E., & Smith, H. L. (1999). Subjective well-being: Three decades of progress. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 276–302.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Gao, W., & Smyth, R. (2011). What keeps China’s migrant workers going? Expectations and happiness among China’s floating population. Journal of the Asia Pacific Economy, 16, 163–182.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. George, L., Okun, M., & Landerman, R. (1985). Age as a moderator of the determinants of life satisfaction. Research on Aging, 7, 209–233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Graham, C., & Pettinato, S. (2002). Frustrated achievers: Winners, losers and subjective well-being in new market economies. Journal of Development Studies, 38, 100–140.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Han, D. (2010). Policing and racialization of rural migrant workers in Chinese cities. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 33, 593–610.Google Scholar
  17. Howell, R. T., & Howell, C. J. (2008). The relation of economic status to subjective well-being in developing countries: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 134, 536–560.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Kahneman, D., & Deaton, A. (2010). High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107, 16489–16493.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Kahneman, D., & Krueger, A. B. (2006). Developments in the measurement of subjective well-being. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 20, 3–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 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
  21. Kim, B. (1998). Socioeconomic status and perception of the quality of life in Korea. Development and Society, 27, 1–15.Google Scholar
  22. Knight, J., & Gunatilaka, R. (2008). Aspirations. Adaptation and Subjective Well-Being of Rural-Urban Migrants in China: Department of Economics, University of Oxford, Discussion Paper No. 322.Google Scholar
  23. Knight, J., & Gunatilaka, R. (2010). Great expectations? The subjective well-being of rural–urban migrants in China. World Development, 38, 113–124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Liberman, N., Sagristano, M. D., & Trope, Y. (2002). The effect of temporal distance on level of mental construal. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 523–534.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Morawetz, D., Atia, E., Bin-Nun, G., Felous, L., Gariplerden, Y., Harris, E., et al. (1977). Income distribution and self-rated happiness: Some empirical evidence. The Economic Journal, 87, 511–522.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Nickerson, C., Schwarz, N., Diener, E., & Kahneman, D. (2003). Zeroing in on the dark side of the American dream: A closer look at the negative consequences of the goal for financial success. Psychological Science, 14, 531–536.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Nielsen, I., Smyth, R., & Zhai, Q. (2010). Subjective well-being of China’s off-farm migrants. Journal of Happiness Studies, 11, 315–333.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Otis, E. (2011). Markets and bodies: Women, service work, and the making of inequality in China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Pavot, W., & Diener, E. (1993). Review of the satisfaction with life scale. Psychological Assessment, 5, 164–172.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Plagnol, A. C., & Easterlin, R. A. (2008). Aspirations, attainments, and satisfaction: Life cycle differences between American women and men. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9, 601–619.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Ray, D. (2006). Aspirations, poverty, and economic change. In A. V. Banerjee, R. Benabou, & D. Mookherjee (Eds.), Understanding poverty (pp. 409–421). Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Smyth, R., Nielsen, I., & Zhai, Q. (2010). Personal well-being in urban China. Social Indicators Research, 95, 231–251.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Stutzer, A. (2004). The role of income aspirations in individual happiness. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 54, 89–109.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Veenhoven, R. (1991). Is happiness relative? Social Indicators Research, 24, 1–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Veenhoven, R. (1996). Developments in satisfaction-research. Social Indicators Research, 37, 1–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Viswanathan, M., Gau, R. & Chaturvedi, A. (2008). Research methods for subsistence marketplaces. In Sustainability challenges and solutions at the base-of-the-pyramid: business, technology and the poor pp. 242–260, Greenleaf Publishing.Google Scholar
  37. Viswanathan, M., Torelli, C. J., Xia, L., & Gau, R. (2009). Understanding the influence of literacy on consumer memory: The role of pictorial elements. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 19, 389–402.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Wang, B., Li, X., Stanton, B., & Fang, X. (2010). The influence of social stigma and discriminatory experience on psychological distress and quality of life among rural-to-urban migrants in China. Social Science and Medicine, 71, 84–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Yang, X. (2000). Determinants of migration intentions in Hubei province, China: individual versus family migration. Environment and Planning A, 32, 769–788.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Yu, X., & Pan, Y. (2008). Consumer society and remaking the subjectivities of a new generation of factory girls (in Chinese). Sociological Studies, 3, 147–175.Google Scholar
  41. Zhao, Y. (1999). Leaving the countryside: Rural-to-urban migration decisions in China. The American Economic Review, 89, 281–286.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Marketing, School of ManagementFudan UniversityShanghaiChina
  2. 2.Department of Sociology, School of Social SciencesUniversity of CaliforniaIrvineUSA

Personalised recommendations