Social Indicators Research

, Volume 121, Issue 2, pp 413–435 | Cite as

The Impact of Income Inequality on Individual Happiness: Evidence from China

  • Peng Wang
  • Jay PanEmail author
  • Zhehui Luo


Using survey data from China, this paper tests the association between individual self-reported happiness and income inequality. The hypothesized relationship between income inequality and individual happiness is an inverted-U shaped association based on the tunnel effect theory proposed by Hirschman and Rothschild (Q J Econ 87(4):544–566, 1973). Using the Chinese General Social Survey data, we empirically investigate the relationship between income inequality and individual happiness and we find evidence confirming the tunnel effect hypothesis. Specifically, individual happiness increases with inequality when county-level inequality measured by the Gini coefficient is less than 0.405, and decreases with inequality for larger values of the Gini coefficient, where approximately 60 % of the counties in the study have a Gini coefficient larger than 0.405. The inverted U-shaped association exists in both urban and rural China; however, the turning points for urban and rural areas are 0.323 and 0.459, respectively. Between the rich and poor groups, the inverted-U shape relationship exists only in the poor subsample.


Income inequality Happiness Subjective wellbeing China 



This study was funded by the Applied Economics Research Funds of Southwest University for Nationalities (2011XWD-S0202), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (71303165), Sichuan University (skqx201401), the China Postdoctoral Science Foundation (2013M540706) and China Medical Board (13-167). We are grateful to the seminar and conference participants at Southwestern University of Finance and Economics for their insightful comments, and to colleagues at the PKU Center of Health Economics Research, Gordon G. Liu, Gergely Horváth and the anonymous referees. Data analyzed in this paper were collected by the research project “China General Social Survey (CGSS)” sponsored by the China Social Science Foundation. This research project was carried out by Department of Sociology, Renmin University of China and Social Science Division, Hong Kong Science and Technology University, and directed by Dr. Li Lulu and Dr. Bian Yanjie. The authors appreciate the assistance in providing data by the institutes and individuals aforementioned. The authors are responsible for all remaining errors.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of EconomicsSouthwest University for NationalitiesChengduChina
  2. 2.West China School of Public HealthSichuan UniversityChengduChina
  3. 3.West China Research Center for Rural Health DevelopmentSichuan UniversityChengduChina
  4. 4.Department of Epidemiology and BiostatisticsMichigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA

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