Collection No 1
Understanding happiness in China at the personal, individual level
Statistics are fine for just looking at the big picture, but what can they tell us about understanding happiness at the personal, individual level? In late 2012, our researchers travelled to Changshu, a coastal city that has experienced healthy, double-digit growth over the last decade, to find and do a real-life case study about the happiest person in China. Our journey ultimately led us to Mr. Li. We set about documenting his personal accomplishments, hopes, consumer preferences, and aspirations, to share his—and his family’s—story.
In 1979, Mr. Li was born in Dongzhang town(东张镇), located within Changshu(常熟市), a third-tier city in China. At age 18 he attended Wuhan University, where he met his future wife. They married in 2004 and had a son one year later. Nowadays, the three of them live in Dongzhang with Mr. Li’s parents and grandpa in a house with two floors and seven rooms. They use their Suzuki car for daily commutes to the chemical manufacturing company where they both work, and to their child’s school. During vacations, they usually drive the car to Kunshan(昆山市), another third-tier city in China, to visit Mrs. Li’s parents. Mr. and Mrs. Li told us that they are “very satisfied” with the life they’ve built for themselves over the last five to seven years, and “feel optimistic” about their future.
Although Dongzhang town is about an hour away via car from Changshu’s downtown, the Lis are willing to live in the suburb because it is still only about a 30-minute commute between home, school, and work.
At his work, Mr. Li mainly supervises production in the workshops and manages material acquisition. At night, he spends an hour helping his son with his homework using SMS guidance from the teacher to ensure his son studies well. After that, Mr. Li finally can enjoy his own time for entertainment and relaxation, consuming all kinds of content, including sports news, law-related TV programs, and online movies.
Every weekend morning, Mr. Li takes the whole family to a restaurant in the town center to enjoy a good meal. He then spends the rest of the day with his friends playing mahjong (麻将), fishing, or swimming while Mrs. Li shops or takes care of housekeeping.
Mr. Li purchased his Suzuki in 2007, mainly to make visiting parents-in-law easier for the family. He had to borrow 50,000RMB ($8,000) from relatives and friends to buy the car, for which he paid 110,000RMB ($17,700).
In 2010, Mr. and Mrs. Li applied for a 650,000RMB ($104,500) loan to buy a new apartment (120 m2) in downtown Changshu. Their total monthly mortgage payments are 2,500RMB ($400), but with the help of the housing fund(公积金), they only need to pay 1,000RMB ($160), which is withdrawn automatically from their own controllable account every month.
Although the Lis aren’t planning to immediately move out of their house in Dongzhang, the mortgage is only a “small part of their monthly income” that they should have fully paid off within seven years. Although rising real estate prices in China are part of the reason they decided to purchase an apartment, they also believe living in the downtown area of the city will ultimately be better for their son’s growth than living in the suburbs because he’ll have more opportunities to meet people, gain greater knowledge, and have richer experiences.
Mr. and Mrs. Li got the key to their apartment early in 2012, after construction was completed. They consider it their happiest moment of recent years, although they did feel they were taking a risk when they took out that loan over two years ago. They are now getting ready to decorate the interior. Their goal is not to rent it out during this time but rather to just hold onto it as an asset and then move in three to four years from now after their son has finished elementary school in the suburbs.
To Mr. and Mrs. Li, having both good health and a harmonious family are the keys to happiness. “The body is the capital of revolution,” Mr. Li told us. He and his wife engage in regular exercise and eat right to stay healthy. Mr. Li does occasionally smoke and drink, but he is aware of how indulging in these acts impacts his health. He therefore avoids overindulging in the tobacco and alcohol.
In Mrs. Li’s words, “a harmonious family can achieve anything they want.” Mr. and Mrs. Li feel lucky that both of their parents have remained healthy in their later years, and recognize what a positive impact they have on their family. For example, Mr. Li’s parents are fit enough to not only help take care of their son, but to help with the housekeeping as well. It is really helpful, especially considering both Mr. and Mrs. Li work full-time. The only concern they have about the family’s health is the environment and how pollution and exposure to toxins may affect them. Their home is a bit close to the nearby industrial park, where there are several chemical-manufacturing plants. Although they both work in this industry, Mr. and Mrs. Li think chemical exposure is bad for their health in the long term.
Mr. and Mrs. Li have aspirations. They want to purchase a better car. As mentioned earlier, they recently purchased an apartment where they will live with their son, who will likely remain there as an adult. Then, Mr. and Mrs. Li plan to purchase another home downtown because they will want to have their own life apart from their immediate family when they eventually retire.
They have also chosen not to have another child, even though they are not prohibited from doing so according to China’s new government policy. Unlike their parents, who are still working in some capacity, Mr. and Mrs. Li expect to enjoy more of their life together after retirement. One of their long-term dreams is to open a boutique to sell fashion products.
Azure is a former senior interaction designer based in frog's Shanghai studio.