Professor Richard Madsen is a co-Principal Investigator of a research project for understanding the pursuit of happiness in China. The spectacular economic growth of that country has brought many people un-dreamed of prosperity but also created new anxieties. As traditional family life disintegrates and corruption pervades public life, many Chinese lament the absence of a stable moral order. Even for comfortably wealthy people, happiness seems to recede beyond reach. With a generous grant from the Templeton Foundation, Madsen and the research team, which is based in Georgetown University and includes professors from Georgetown, Yale, and Kenyon College, will explore the hopes and aspirations, the disappointments and frustrations of people in this time of confusing transition.
The Concept of Fu (福) in Contemporary China: Searching for Well-Being, Purpose, and the Good Life in an Age of Anxiety
The Chinese concept of fu is frequently translated “happiness.” But like the Greek eudaimonia, fu connotes more than hedonistic satisfaction; it is the well-being associated with achieving a “good” life—one of virtue, honor, and purpose. What constitutes this goodness, however, is not a static understanding. Over the past thirty years, the Chinese government has replaced its Maoist blueprint with a new hybrid of market-socialism. The country has become wealthy, and most citizens enjoy modest levels of material security. Above certain levels, however, this additional wealth is not equating with increased happiness. Rapid societal change and unreconciled modern values serve to moderate otherwise expected increases in happiness, particularly when confounded by powerful economic and geopolitical interests. In response, many Chinese anxiously search among multiple moral strands to discover how to live a purposeful and virtuous life.
For all their good intentions and eager funding, surveys on happiness have tended to measure more mood than fu. This results in generally policy-moot findings that cannot address the problem of cultural variation in our understanding of what makes a life a good one. We will draw on in-depth interviews and participant observation in three metropolitan areas, as well as published texts, in order to capture the more robust, animating, and foundational aspects of happiness. Since when people evaluate their lives, they do so in relation to orienting categories, our study centralizes moral understandings in the comprehension of happiness.
Concrete outputs include a book, an edited scholarly volume, journal articles, media outreach, and new survey designs to change dominant social-science research paradigms for happiness. The research will lead to improved surveys on happiness worldwide, advanced policy understanding for the common good of all, and the promotion of mutual understanding between the United States and China.