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Money can't buy happiness, as saying goes
Updated: 2004-08-31 00:58

Chinese incomes have increased tenfold over the past two decades, and with the new wealth have come better living standards and social progress.

Yet people are finding out that the age-old adage still applies: Money can't buy happiness.

In fact, some psychologists believe that many Chinese individuals have never been quite so bothered by psychological crises.

Recent media reports have recounted the case of a college student who became a murderer after a minor confrontation with peers, migrant workers committing suicide after failing to obtain overdue wages, members of the social elite falling into hypochondria (imagined illnesses) and government officials ruining their careers by succumbing to greed and taking bribes.

Behind these incidents is an unhealthy mentality of individuals who fail to deal with an abruptly changing society in this transitional period, said Wang Dengfeng, a psychology professor at Beijing University.

China has been making a switch from a planned economy to a market economy since the early 1980s, during which time the nation's prospects have boomed and social strata have been reclassified. Some have had greater opportunity for advancement.

Driven by manic pace

The market economy also created social "mania" for personal wealth and drove many people into business.

"Overnight, people felt they have in a sense become commercial goods on the shelves, willing to get market recognition and hopefully become the top-brand Coca Cola one day," Wang said.

Twenty years have been long enough to witness some successful stories. Leading a pressured-packed life, some have struggled for a while before finally excelling, Wang said.

"But then do they feel happy? No, they find they have become nothing but businessmen. Their lost identity imposed further mental afflictions on them."

For Chinese who did not go into business, their incomes might also have increased tenfold, or even hundredfold due to the economic boom. But psychological studies show their desires for things increased tremendously. In the process, their salaries could not cover their desires.

"Instead of feeling contented, they get frustrated," Wang acknowledged.

Uncertainty is another key element of the transitional era, a situation bothering the whole nation. When people do not have good expectations of the future, they tend to focus on short-term interests and become impulsive, said Hou Yubo, another psychologist with the Beijing University.

Social uncertainty

Combining social uncertainty and the worship of personal fortunes, some Chinese have behaved abnormally in this transitional period, Hou added.

Bribe-taking among officials has become a prominent social phenomenon since the market economy was put into place. From the psychological perspective, it is considered an impulsive act due to social uncertainty and pursuit of money, said Hou.

"Corruption arises when these officials do not feel secure in their quality of life," he said.

Targeting a study of this, Shi Kan, a psychologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is working on a digital model to analyze human mental factors, focusing on variations such as compulsion and social responsibility. "It is soon expected to be used in selecting high-ranking government officials."

On another front, Chinese farmers' income increased a lot in the past two decades, but compared with other social classifications, they feel that the transitional period has been unfair to them. Business leaders from cities swarmed into the countryside to make great fortunes by taking up arable land or tapping mineral resources. However, farmers are still faced with hard days of crop-planting. Those seeking who have migrated to difficult labour-intensive jobs in cities, often suffer severe discrimination and cannot obtain overdue wages.

"The accumulated resentment and dissatisfaction of farmers cannot be released normally through time, causing abnormal conduct," noted Hou. Psychologists are obliged to provide psychological assistance programmes to help people through inner conflicts.

Youth face complex scene

Children also face severe issues. Wang Dengfeng holds that abrupt social changes have outpaced the country's educational system, causing severe psychological crises for youths.

"Chinese education has become about making children and young people recite things, ignoring behaviour shaping lives and building up healthy mental states," said Wang.

Thus, Ma Jiajue, a student from Yunnan University, who failed to deal with inner conflicts, chose to kill four of his peers.

Professor Uwe Gielen from the United States has long studied cross-cultural psychology. He suggested a programme geared to teach young mothers how to bring up children.

"Compared with other groups, children's behaviour is easier to modify," he said. "More important, they are the future of the country."

Zhang Kan, president of the Chinese Psychological Society, is so worried about the psychological problems of affluent Chinese.

"We psychologists are committed to joining hands with sociologists and public policy researchers to provide possible solutions for the public," he said.

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