Domestics Affairs

Right mentality for society

By Chen Yanru (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-11-25 08:00
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Humbleness, watchfulness, and thankfulness are the qualities required to avoid an 'unhealthy prosperity complex'

It has been said, at home as well as abroad, that Chinese people's conduct lacks the necessary elegance and politeness to accompany the country's growing status and material affluence, and Chinese people need to guard against an "unhealthy prosperity complex".

Which begs the questions:

Is it possible to cultivate and promote a mentality that befits and perpetuates prosperity?

And if so, what "healthy" national mentality is appropriate for China today?

Studies conducted over the past decade suggest there are at least three fundamental ingredients required for a healthy mentality in a prosperous society. These are: humbleness, watchfulness, and thankfulness.

Until recently, it seemed difficult to locate a point of equilibrium in the national psyche. For more than a century the nation has vacillated between a superiority complex and an inferiority complex. But along with China's rapid economic growth and rising living standards, many people in the country seem to have grown conceited and find it hard to accept any criticism. Nationalistic sentiments and opinions are widespread among a considerable number of young and educated people.

Such pride and conceit makes us blind to our shortcomings, including our social ills and the price we are paying, environmentally and culturally, in our push for development.

Humility can be constructive. It helps us to recognize our drawbacks in comparison with the developed world and motivates us to move forward in a way that will benefit the whole of society rather than just a few. It also helps us to consider whether international criticism is justified or not. After all, the greatest room in the world is room for improvement.

The life span of most individuals is likely to be less than 100 years, but history is an ongoing process. As a nation we build on the past and reap what our predecessors have sown. Most contemporary Chinese are beneficiaries of the hard work of previous generations.

Being watchful is the second essential ingredient for a healthy national mentality. There are far more temptations in times of prosperity. Official ranks, material interests, vainglory and passion may not be that bad if viewed in an isolated manner, but in the context of a market economy that encourages pursuit of personal gain, these things can be "traded" and tempt many into behavior that is detrimental to themselves and society.

Those who are watchful are less likely to fall prey to temptation than those with too much self-confidence who profess they will never stumble.

By virtue of being human, we all have our flaws. We should remain watchful against our human frailty, lest we slip and fall into crime or immorality before we realize it, like so many corrupt officials.

As for the third ingredient, thankfulness, it is the parent of all other virtues. Of those who can survive adversity, less than half will survive prosperity. According to social scientific theory, satisfaction equals achievement divided by expectation. China has made great achievements in economic development and social progress, but what if the population's expectations are unreasonably high, so high they cannot be satisfied?

Lack of thankfulness inevitably leads to rising expectations that as they grow become impossible to fulfill and so lead to frustration.

Thankfulness leads to contentment, not because we have achieved or acquired all that we want, but because we realize how much we already have.

As the German author J. W. Goethe said: "You will never have what you like until you learn to like what you have."

A heart full of gratitude cannot be angry. Therefore, it is safe to say that a thankful mentality will make our society healthier, safer, and more stable.

Without humility one cannot be truly thankful, and without being thankful no one can remain humble. The educated elite at the top of the social pyramid often ignore the crucial fact that they have benefited more from reform and opening-up than those at the bottom. But those at the bottom still contribute to society and are worthy of recognition.

Being humble, watchful and thankful are essential if we want to maintain a healthy and prosperous society. If we have learned anything from history, we realize that the right attitude precedes right behavior. But the distance between knowing and doing is sometimes the longest distance in the world.

We have a long way to go in cultivating a healthy national mentality that befits prosperity. But acknowledging our needs will put us on the right track.

The author is a professor with the School of Journalism & Communication at Xiamen University.

(China Daily 11/25/2010 page8)