Brand guru/market research dude Martin Lindstrom wrote this article for Fast Company about his 300 days of world travel looking into what makes people happy. It isn't exactly breaking news - we've all heard stories of happy communities supported by strong family ties in regions of abject poverty, but this section juxtaposing rural Australia to urban China was especially resonant:
"Another journey took me way into the Australian bush to a place where a toilet capable of flushing would be a novelty. Kids were busy kicking around a football on the street, but almost all took time out to speak to me, curious about who I was and what I was doing there. A young man told me that he felt happy when he helped others. He tried to perform one act of kindness a day. This young man had only seen television twice in his life.
But it was when I got the chance to visit some of the 60 million newly built homes in China that all this really hit, well, home. Each new home was wired for the 21st century. Every room had television screens hooked up to high-speed Internet and each home came equipped with the latest in electronic gadgetry. In fact, the entire block was connected to a community intranet designed to help the neighbors stay in touch. I couldn't help noticing that there was an important element missing: smiles. I didn't see one of them.
I pursued my questions of happiness with a young Chinese family who had only been living in the city for two years. There responses were measured. They said, "We're doing fine, but there is still so much to achieve before we will become truly happy." It seems the family aspired to all the things they were seeing being won on the daily online video shows. "I've seen what you can get, and we still don't have many of the things. So, we need to work harder. Then, I'm sure, one day we will get there."
The city was orderly. There were no children playing outside. I'd been instructed to wear a mask, wrap my shoes in plastic, and sit on a cover on the chair. Everything was to stay clean and uncontaminated. Almost all the homes I visited around Beijing and Shanghai shared the same idea that sanitary living meant living a longer life."
I don't have much to add to that, except that his research corresponds with my personal experience. Shanghai lacks smiles. The economy is gangbusters but it's buoyed by a lot of people who work incredibly hard and aren't having a good time because they literally have no time to have a good time. It's a strange place we live in: I have more vacation time than I would in the US, I can afford things (like a cleaning lady three times a week) I'd never consider in the US, and I'm surrounded by Chinese people my age who are under tremendous pressure to buy a house, buy a car, support their parents and generally get ahead.
I like the occasional reminder to be grateful for the choices I have and to enjoy life wherever I am.