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Translating Idea into Reality? A Q-Methodological Investigation of Chinese Local Officials’ Response to the Initiative of a Happiness Index

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This research attempts to provide insights into the extent to which the novel idea of happiness indices has been translated into reality, a topic that arguably remains under-explored in happiness studies. In particular, we focus on local reform participants’ response to the idea of using individuals’ happiness to guide the process of policy-making. Using the official effort to establish a happiness index in Guangdong as a unique case (a southern province in China), we investigated two interrelated questions: (1) to what extent do reform participants identify with the arguments legitimating happiness-inspired reforms? (2) How do they understand the values of the new measurement system? Q methodology was used to reveal local officials’ (N = 22) subjectivity towards a series of tenets and assumptions associated with happiness indices and the actual implementation of this particular idea in their departments. The results suggested two particular patterns within the viewpoints held by the informants: a realist perspective and a progressive optimist perspective. In spite of minor differences, the two perspectives shared much common ground: both recognized the normative values of happiness indices in general, but expressed a great deal of suspicion as to the validity of self-reported happiness. Moreover, they were either neutral or suspicious towards the positive statements about the actual implementation of happiness-inspired reform in the province and its substantive impact.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Following the practice of the literature, subjective well-being (SWB), life satisfaction and happiness are used interchangeably in this research, and refer to the degree to which individuals evaluate their lives favorably.

  2. 2.

    R method is the generalized reference to Pearson’s correlation analysis, which is a common statistical tool in behaviorism research.

  3. 3.

    In the literature of organization studies, argumentative analysis has typically been interpreted as a method of analyzing and reconstructing how social agents justify and legitimate a particular organizational phenomenon through skilled use of language (Green 2004; Vaara and Tienari 2002).

  4. 4.

    It is important to note that the invitations were issued in January (around the Chinese New Year of 2014), a period which is the busiest in the year for most public officials. Therefore it was inevitable that some might not have time to take part in the project. Nevertheless, most of the participants were very cooperative. Among the six who failed to return usable Q sorts, three had technical problems, such as their unfamiliarity with the software, or the fact that FlashQ could not operate stably on their Windows XP system.

  5. 5.

    Basically, a crib sheet looks like a security sheet, and each sheet contains a consistent structure in which items ranked at the poles of distribution (e.g. ±4) and distinguishing items are listed. This structure focuses analysts’ attention on those statements that have significant implications for inferring the substance of viewpoints.


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Correspondence to Jiayuan Li.

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Li, J. Translating Idea into Reality? A Q-Methodological Investigation of Chinese Local Officials’ Response to the Initiative of a Happiness Index. Soc Indic Res 139, 433–452 (2018).

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  • Chinese local government
  • Happiness
  • Happiness indices
  • Implementation
  • Q methodology