Reporting and Narrating Happiness: A Mixed-Method Study Examining Self-Reported Happiness of the Chinese Urban Middle Class

  • Yuan Dang

Student thesis: Unknown


This study aims to paint a timely and holistic picture of how the Chinese urban middle-class understand, and narrate, happiness in the context of a rapidly developing economy. The study is sociological in approach and addresses the following research questions: What are the trends and patterns in happiness among the urban middle class? What does happiness mean for Chinese middle-class individuals, and to what extent does its meaning inform the conceptualisation of happiness? Do the middle class - as defined by socioeconomic status - subjectively identify themselves as 'middle class'? And, how do the experiences, as well as narration, of happiness differ in accordance with individuals' socio-demographic attributes (i.e. class, age, gender, ethnicity, and marital and parental status)? In answering these research questions, this study integrates the merits of a quantitative approach, which offers the possibility of deriving general patterns of happiness among the middle class, and a qualitative approach, which allow us to understand and reconstruct happiness through insight into people's perceptions and experiences of happiness. The quantitative data draws upon all available Chinese General Social Survey (CGSS) data sets (2003-2015) while the qualitative data consists of 51 semi-structured interviews conducted by the author in Guangzhou, China. This qualitatively-driven mixed-method research not only uniquely contributes to the field of happiness research in China, which is currently dominated by large-scale survey research, but helps inform the sociological understanding of happiness through the study of the lived experience of happiness. The analysis of survey data undertaken for this study demonstrates that happiness among the urban middle class increased over the period 2003 to 2015, albeit with fluctuations. Individual interview narratives, however, suggest that this is not explained by national-level developments or 'moods'. The study also identified significant variation in reported happiness within the Chinese urban middle class according to individual socio-demographic characteristics. Specifically, happiness among the middle class was found to be associated with individuals' position within the middle class, their age, gender, ethnicity, and marital and parenthood status. Using the interview data I gathered, some of the reasons underlying this variation could be illuminated. This data also suggest that those who occupationally fit the definition of 'middle class' do not always identify subjectively as such. Multiple group identification, the rigid and hierarchical inter- as well as intra- classification of work-unit organisations (particularly in education and the healthcare system), and the influence of stereotypical, usually Westernised, images of the middle class in the media might serve to explain this inconsistency between middle class by occupation and middle class by subjective identification. Finally, the interviews allowed for individual reflection by research participants on what constitutes 'happiness' for them. The findings support Hsu's (2019a) argument that happiness, in contemporary China, is constructed as a morally good life. Most of my respondents tended to associate happiness ('xingfu') with life evaluations in terms of whether (aspects of) their life were considered happy. They equated happiness with satisfaction in both family and work domains, or to use Hsu's (2019b) expression, they wished to 'have it all'. The analysis of this data suggests that Veenhoven's (1984) framework for conceptualising happiness as comprising cognitive and affective dimensions can be applied broadly to the Chinese context. However, when evaluating their own happiness (xingfu), respondents appeared to prioritise its cognitive component. In so doing, they distinguished it from 'kuaile', which was perceived as an automatically triggered feeling with no cognitive association. Thus, in this study, kuaile does not appear to be
Date of Award1 Aug 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJacqueline Carter (Supervisor), Laia Becares (Supervisor) & Hilary Pilkington (Supervisor)


  • Mixed methods research
  • Happiness and life stage
  • Subjective class identity
  • Gendered expressiveness
  • Meaning of happiness
  • Sociology of happiness
  • Chinese middle class

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