Analysis of the Production Side: Depression in Drastic Time Changes

  • I-Hsin HsiaoEmail author


After analyzing the spatial changes, we will come to the sociological analysis of temporal alterations. The drastic changes of time in neoliberal globalization are related to a logic of “competitiveness” which emphasizes fast speed.

After analyzing the spatial changes, we will come to the sociological analysis of temporal alterations. The drastic changes of time in neoliberal globalization are related to a logic of “competitiveness” which emphasizes fast speed.

3.1 Competitiveness in Neoliberal Globalization

Karen Horney (Karen Danielson) raised a key question in her book The Neurotic Personality of Our Times: Why are there so many neurotic patients in our culture? She pointed out that the emphasis on competition in the commercial society we are in has catalyzed one human instinct, the instinct of hostility, which makes it difficult for people to let things go and thus relieve stress (Horney 1998, translated by Feng 1988). Her book was published in 1937, when the capitalist society was already promoting great competition. However, with the expansion of neoliberal globalization, time-based competition, namely, competition in terms of reaction time, has been intensified. In other words, time efficiency has more than ever become a priority. The intensification of time efficiency is embodied in the fact that individuals are required to be “competitive”. Competitiveness means being fast in production and having higher productivity than others. Moreover, now enterprises often reduce overstaffing to optimize the structure and maximize employee productivity. In the post-Fordism era, workers are required to be more flexible, to update their skills regularly, to take various forms of on-the-job training, and to accept and create new things (Jessop 2002). The post-Fordism era is more variable and flexible than the era in which Karen Horney lived. Therefore, contemporary people need to be able to adapt themselves to various situations, including knowledge management, proficiency in foreign languages, professional skills and so on, all of which are part of their “competitiveness”.

The “competitiveness” emphasized by neoliberal globalization has expanded to the individual level from the international level. First of all, the logic of competitiveness increases the anxiety of parents and children. Children grow up in an environment of excessive competition, which increases their parents’ anxiety as well. Then, people who are accustomed to stability and cannot adapt to rapid changes are relatively prone to depression in an environment that emphasizes flexibility and mobility. In particular, children born in the Fordist era with stable and good welfare can no longer enjoy such welfare when they are grown up. They can only be nostalgic of the good old days. Now that they have to endure both the reduction of welfare and the cruelty of competitiveness, those who have difficulty in adapting are prone to depression. “Depression is closely related to one’s personality. The more serious, responsible and hardworking individuals are more likely to suffer from depression.” (Nomura 2008) such a personality is mostly appreciated and praised, but in the eyes of psychologists, people with such a personality are at high risk of depression. Ironically, the logic of “competitiveness” forces people to develop such a personality. In the context of highly competitive neoliberalism, which emphasizes economic performance, it is very difficult for individuals to maintain mental health. The logic emphasizing speed, efficiency and competitiveness is like the big Other who manipulates society and is internalized in the inner “superego”. The excessive sense of responsibility is the excessive development of the superego, which, according to Freud’s insight, can lead to the oppression of the self and a growing tendency of self-abuse and self-attack. This pressure to excessively pursue efficiency tends to become the oppression by the superego in neoliberal globalization.

Changes in the economic structure have made most of the working population a salaried class. With different types of colleagues and bosses, interpersonal relationships have become a source of pressure for them. What’s more, they may face setbacks in the workplace, such as economic recession and layoffs. They are worried that they cannot match the model role that social norms have defined or the roles that the society expects them to fulfill. These multiple factors have made the current generation over-stressed and may finally lead them to depression.

The logic of competitiveness has also shaped new types of personality. Christopher Lane found that the human personality traits of “shyness” and “bashfulness” gradually became an illness that needed to be defined and treated in the 1980s. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), extreme bashfulness, introversion, eccentricity, reserve, unsociability and other temperament traits related to shyness have become the symptoms of “social anxiety disorder” (also called social phobia) and “avoidance personality disorder”. The connotation of “shyness” is now completely different from what it used to mean. People can only be “no longer shy” so as not to be diagnosed with social anxiety disorder. If an individual cannot express himself “openly” and “freely”, his shyness may even become the biggest obstacle in a competitive society (Lane 2007). For this reason, a disease is defined as a disease precisely because it represents a lack or deficiency under the supremacy of productivity. It must be defined as being abnormal in order to highlight the normality of the social ideology of productivity supremacy. It is an object that must be excluded under the hegemony of mainstream social culture.

In addition, because competitiveness emphasizes time efficiency, procrastination is regarded as something pathological or immoral. In neoliberal globalization, procrastination has become a condemned act, a manifestation of lack of self-regulated performance (Tuckman and Sexton 1989). The idea that time is money has been deeply rooted in the hearts of the people since the rise of capitalism. With the flexible accumulation of neoliberal globalization, the demand for efficiency becomes even greater. Only with high speed can business opportunities be grasped. This logic of “demanding efficient use of time to achieve high productivity” is “reasonable” and “normal”, while procrastination is “unreasonable” and “abnormal”, because procrastination does not conform to the neoliberal concept of individuals as responsible players. Even when people are on vacation, it doesn’t mean they spend all their time doing nothing. Every minute must still be filled with activities other than work (such as planned leisure). The capitalist logic of limitless development makes the personal pursuit of success endless as well. People have to bear the pressure and anxiety of constant competition. This economic system is internalized through discipline in the modern ethics of time. In modern times, people often need to cope with the time-based anxiety with rational methods, such as psychotherapy and time management techniques, so as to facilitate reproduction.

Martin (2007) believed that the transformation of economic and social structures causes a mental illness to be more serious than in the past.1 As market relations became more and more developed in the late neoliberal capitalist society, the economy dominated many sectors, and fierce and ruthless competition became more intense, which encouraged the “mania” that can increase productivity and effectiveness. In other words, the competitive economic system demands high morale for production—workaholic enthusiasm and increased labor intensity and efficiency, all of which need strong “manic” emotions. People cycle between manic highs and depressive lows, just as the market inevitably swings from cycles of boom to bust. Such “depression” is a “sense of not desiring to move because of a lack of life motivations” when the mood hits bottom. People tend to feel “depressed” after being “manic”. This kind of analysis may be a little too brief, limited to economic competition factors while ignoring other complex factors like personal experience and family influence; but it is enlightening and inspiring (Ning and He 2012: 112). Individuals who have exhausted themselves in their struggles and mobility may become “immobile (incapacitated) subjects” if they suffer from depressive symptoms. These people cannot adapt to productive and constructive functions (not desiring to consume, eat or go out). They avoid acting or fear to do things, and cannot meet the requirements of their social roles when they are seriously mentally ill. This is actually like the defense mechanism theory in psychoanalysis mentioned previously. Depression patients (or mental disorder patients) seek relief by hiding in diseases. Being unable or unwilling to move can be regarded as a protest against overwork and an excessively demanding environment.

In neoliberalism, which requires high performance and emphasizes competitiveness with great productivity and enterprising spirit, the “immobility” and “incapacitation” of depression are, of course, regarded as serious deviations. Depression is defined in contrast to the neoliberal performance standard that emphasizes “mobility” and “capability”, which places depression more in the spotlight (Ning and He 2012: 111). After the reform and opening up, China followed the path of East Asian developing countries to catch up with and surpass other countries in national strength; as a large country with a large population, the market competition is extremely fierce. From the central government to governments at various local levels to individuals, competition is everywhere and speed is constantly stressed. The logic of competitiveness increases people’s stress and emotional problems increase accordingly.

3.2 Case Study of Depression in the Competitive Discourse with Chinese Characteristics

Under the influence of neoliberal globalization, China has entered the competitive logic of the market economy. China used the imperial examination as a competitive mechanism in imperial times, so in those times the only way to get ahead was to study. The way was in general maintained until the reform and opening up. However, after the marketization with the reform and opening up, competition has extensively entered different sectors, including academia, business and entertainment (singing competitions, quiz and talent shows.) In these fields, all participants have to pass through cutthroat competition to stand out. Chinese-style competition was already fierce in the past; in neoliberal globalization, competition has permeated all walks of life and become more intense.

The logic of competitiveness with Chinese characteristics includes not only the time efficiency highlighted in neoliberal globalization, but also its own traditional social norms: each individual should conform to the expected social roles of Confucian ethics. To be more specific, there is “a logic of happiness towards the road to success”—to live a good life, one must enter a good college, find a good job, buy a big house and car, find a good spouse, enjoy his/her retired life, and be a good father, mother, son, daughter, boss or employee. These ethical requirements together with the ethic of doing well one’s duty become a norm for people to make comparisons with others. Those who cannot go to good schools, find good jobs, buy cars and houses or shoulder their proper ethical roles are not defined by the society as living a beautiful life. The Chinese-style logic of competitiveness characterized by the ethic of doing well one’s part at every life stage and the capitalist time efficiency are like the big Other, demanding the subject to meet its needs all the time and exerting a kind of superego pressure on the subject. This is in line with Freud’s and Lacan’s views. In the following section, we will illustrate how Chinese people encounter and react to this big Other with case studies of individuals of different ages.

Case 1 Depressed pupils under excessive competition

Recently, the fierce competition has extended to primary schools. Logically, today’s children should have enjoyed a happy childhood, but in reality they have been severely deprived of their happy childhood. In this case, Xiao Zhuang, a fifth grader interviewed by the author, suffered from childhood depression. Following is the description of his emotional suffering.

First was the pressure from the strenuous work of learning Chinese characters. When he was in first grade, Pinyin and Chinese characters were taught at the same time, which overwhelmed him because he hadn’t learnt these in his kindergarten years. He was also assigned much homework, always finishing it after 10 pm. In third grade, his Chinese teacher asked the whole class to join the class WeChat group, to take photos of their finished assignments and keep these photos, and then inform the teacher through WeChat. Competition was permeating not only the school, but also family life. Some children finished their homework soon after school, while others did not finish it until 10 o’clock in the evening, making their parents anxious and desperate to urge them to finish it quickly. Learning was originally a happy thing, but now the excessive and fast learning made Xiao Zhuang feel unable to breathe. Also because of excessive study, Xiao Zhuang became shortsighted when he was a third grader.

Moreover, the average test scores from grade 3 to grade 5 are taken as the admission criteria for some “esteemed middle schools”. Parents, fearing that their children will not be able to attend renowned middle schools, try their best to urge their children to study hard. Xiao Zhuang was originally interested in learning, but later became extremely resistant due to the pressure of high competition. He was disobedient and rebelled against his teachers in school. After the teachers reported his behavior to his parents, they punished him more, making his resistance more serious. Finally, he was unwilling to study, being lazy and unmotivated all day. His mother also mentioned that he once said to her, “You know, life is boring. I really want to die.” He was then only eleven years old when he had the idea of suicide. At this point, his mother asked a psychological consultant to help the child out of depression.

The psychological counselor told the author that today’s children are in a state of high tension all day and are even forced to do things that are not suitable for their age to meet the expectations of their elders. Due to the elders’ great expectations and the cruel social reality, many children suffer from depression.

Case 2 The agony of middle school students under the Gaokao pressure

Xiaoqin, a high school student soon to take Gaokao, the National College Entrance Examination, was facing the pressure of excessive competition as well. Her performances in physics and mathematics had been unsatisfactory. In the year before the Entrance Examination, she had suffered from frequent diarrhea, dizziness and even anorexia. Her mother was very worried and took her to a psychological counselor for help. Her symptoms were relieved after taking part in some religious activities. According to her own description, she was a post-90 s single child (born in the 1990s) in a well-to-do family. As the only child, she received great care from her elders and grew up with their praise. She was used to setting excessively high expectations for herself. When her performance was not as good as expected or not affirmed positively by others, she would have doubts about herself. Praise from others strengthened Xiaoqin’s feeling of being special and drove her to work hard. However, the lack of others’ praise increased her anxiety and she would feel that she had failed. Xiaoqin excelled in school and was used to admiration and praise from others. As a result, she was more afraid of failure, because failure meant that she was no longer special. Failure would end her feeling of being special. Once she did not perform well in one or more subjects, many physical symptoms would appear under the great pressure, such as gastrointestinal dysfunction and anorexia. The emergence of the symptoms indicated that she had started her psychological defense mechanism. In addition, she was too preoccupied with herself and too concerned about her performance at school. She even blindly believed that others were observing her performance all the time, so she should not make mistakes. It was not until the psychologist guided her to focus on other things that she overcame her preoccupation with herself.

A similar situation occurred to the 14-year-old boy little S, whose parents had stable jobs and high incomes. He lived with his parents before he went to junior high school, and they doted on him. After he went to junior high school, his father was often away and seldom came home. The stable family relationship was broken. Little S often lived alone with his mother and gradually became unwilling to communicate with his father. When he was alone, he always hid in a corner to read books or come up with foolish ideas. He became inattentive in class, and his academic performance declined sharply. However, his elder brother always had good grades. His parents often used his elder brother as a reference to criticize and blame him for failing to perform well at school. He gradually became less talkative. The school in which little S studied prioritized its college enrollment rate and did not allow students to behave in a way that could affect the teaching routines and goals. Most of the school time was devoted to study, and teachers paid close attention to students who had high scores in the exams and little attention to students like him. Instead of spending more time teaching him how to study and how to correct his study attitudes, his teachers exerted great pressure on him. What was more serious was that the teachers often criticized or incorrectly evaluated him in class, saying that he was stupid and unmotivated, only idling away his time. His classmates often made fun of him too. Some teachers even told his classmates with good academic performance not to be friends with him. The school environment made him feel less and less valued and aggravated his boredom with study, which developed into a boredom with everything around him. He was diagnosed with depression after seeing a doctor.

The above stories of young people’s growth reflect that when they are overly cared for or when they are in unhappy families, the stress events encountered in their study can trigger emotional problems.

Case 3 Stress of college students from poor families

The following case is presented by the psychological counselor Zhenji Zhou in his book Yi Yu: Yi Ge Xin Li Zi Xun Shi De Zhi Liao Shou Ji (Depression: A Psychologist’s Consultation Records and Notes).

Jianhua Shao, a 23-year-old young man, grew up in the countryside. His father was a carpenter and his family was poor. He knew clearly that it was not easy for his parents to afford the expense for him to go to college, so he was unwilling to disappoint them. He achieved excellent results in junior high school, but when he entered a renowned senior high school, he was just average in his studies. In addition, he could not match his classmates’ accommodation and clothing. He had a sense of inferiority and was unwilling to associate with his classmates. When he was an undergraduate student, his grades were lower than average and he did not develop good interpersonal relationships. According to Zhou’s diagnose, Shao lacked positive encouragement. He was a rural boy who studied in the city, his academic achievements were not satisfactory and his material conditions were worse than others’—all these environmental factors strengthened his negative ideas and made him feel more inferior. Then the stress events of studying and living in a big city escalated the negative conflict and brought about drastic changes in his heart (Zhou 2006: 189–220).

This case shows that poor students are a special group in colleges and universities. They generally have heavy family burdens, which can lead to greater psychological pressure. They are often in a state of anxiety. Their sensitivity, melancholy and sense of inferiority lead to self-isolation and difficulties in developing good interpersonal relationships with others. In the face of difficulties, they are more inclined to develop self-defense mechanisms of suppressing, denying or projecting their feelings. Long-term and repeated use of these defense mechanisms may damage their normal psychological functions, accumulate negative emotions and lead to depression.

Case 4 Pressure from academic discrimination

Academic qualifications are what the Chinese value in job hunting. Lately, employers take as the employment standards not only the highest academic qualification, but also high school and undergraduate academic qualifications.

Xiaoshi, a man who had only a secondary vocational degree, was discriminated against at work after graduation. His performance was better than that of his colleagues with a bachelor’s degree or above, but his salary was not as high. He was dissatisfied with his work, so he continued to study and finally obtained a master’s degree. When he got his master’s degree, he changed his job, but this degree did not make him gain better salary. In the job application form, he had to fill in both the highest degree and the first degree after middle school. When employers choose excellent talents from a group of graduates with high-level degrees, they no longer merely look at the highest degree; they also check whether the candidates graduated from a prestigious university or high school. As Xiaoshi graduated from a secondary vocational school, his pay was still lower than others’. He tried all means to win his boss’s approval and performed well in his work, but at the same time he was not satisfied with the boss’s discrimination against him. Once at a meeting, he argued with the boss and was fired. He was under the heavy pressure of a mortgage and living costs and could not accept the fact of unemployment in his heart; he said to himself that he had worked so hard but ended up like this. Later, he was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and was hospitalized in the Shanghai Mental Health Center for about one month. He had been unable to understand why society has such a serious discriminating attitude toward different academic qualifications and has set up so many barriers to stop those who are willing to work hard. He had been trying hard to prove that he was capable, but he did not receive due recognition. He lost his job, his life became hard and meaningless to him. As a result, he fell into depression.

In the case of Xiaoshi, depression arose not only from the economic burden of unemployment, but also from the inability to accept the discrimination against certain academic qualifications. His depression can be regarded as the mental exhaustion after excessive efforts. It is also an emotional protest against the unfair system.

Case 5 High-level degree dilemma: “Oversea Returnees” (haigui, 海归) become “Returnees Waiting for Employment” (haidai, 海待)

It is a problem that one’s academic qualifications are not acknowledged. It is a more serious one that those with high-level degrees from good universities cannot secure a job. One example is an oversea returnee who obtained a Master degree but faced unemployment after graduation.

Little Shi, who obtained a Master degree in law in Britain in 2005, told us about his situation. He said that even for relatively wealthy families, the expensive tuition of Chinese students in Britain cost a considerable proportion of the family savings. Little Shi’s parents expected that his degree from a British university would enable him to earn more money and look after his parents. However, Little Shi’s return to Shanghai coincided with a “return rush”, which made his overseas academic qualifications less valued than before. He did find a job, but it was not as good as his parents expected of him. What is worse, the rising house prices in Shanghai made it impossible for Shi to buy a proper house on his own. He had to live in a small apartment his parents had bought earlier, while his parents bought a bigger house in the suburbs. Shi’s work made his parents feel very unhappy because their investment in Shi’s overseas education did not get proper returns. His parents’ attitude hurt him very much. In fact, his family and neighbors could not believe that a “returnee” with British academic qualifications could be unemployed. Their attitudes made him uncomfortable. During his long-term unemployment, he often couldn’t fall asleep and was stressed because of other people’s contemptuous attitudes. Such a situation lasted for about a year and a half, and he survived this depressive unemployment period with the help of a group of close friends and drugs. This reflects the current situation that returnees in China are facing in the neoliberal globalization— high unemployment, deep frustration and depreciation of self-value.

If we place Little Shi’s micro-story in the context of globalization, we can see the trajectory of neoliberal globalization. Since the 1990s, global higher education, on the one hand, has been influenced by the market logic of neoliberal globalization, and gradually a global academic capitalism characterized by internationalization, marketization and standardization has come into being. On the other hand, global higher education has expanded greatly in “quantity” (Dai 2001) and accordingly universities have increased their enrollment. Universities in Europe, the United States and other developed countries have successively launched masters and doctoral programs to attract foreign students. With increasingly enhanced economic strength, studying abroad has become a trend in China after the reform and opening up. Chinese people’s concept of education as an investment has also boosted the trend to study in European countries and the United States. Many parents save up and send their children abroad to obtain a degree. These factors have resulted in a wave of overseas study. However, as the number of returnees soars, many returnees are facing deeper anguish. They are facing a series of challenges, including employment crises, cross-cultural adaptation, conflict and adaptation after returning home. As the number of returnees surges in big cities, those with overseas academic qualifications or overseas experience no longer enjoy advantages in employment, and their salary level is not much different from those with a Chinese academic background. Many returnees who do not have irreplaceable high professional skills or special foreign work experience have become “returnees waiting for employment” due to their high salary expectations. The gap between the great efforts and investment in overseas study and the unemployment after graduation creates a potential basis for the onset of depression.

Case 6 Young people’s pressure in the workplace

In his book Yi Yu: Yi Ge Xin Li Zi Xun Shi De Zhi Liao Shou Ji (Depression: A Psychologist’s Consultation Records and Notes), Zhenji Zhou presented the case of Biying Huang. Huang was a child who grew up in others’ praise. She was very responsible and would not refuse others. She had a smooth life in her youth and formed a personality pattern of “being obedient and making no mistakes, then getting rewards”. Because of her personality, she won the trust of her colleagues after she was employed, but many of the colleagues often asked her to take on work beyond her ability. Because she was embarrassed to refuse their requests, the colleagues trusted her more and gave her more work to do. As a result of her responsible attitude, she became overworked and depressed (Zhou 2006: 221–250). Ironically, the work ethic of being responsible, which deserves praise, turns out to be a stressor in the globalized logic of competitiveness.

Case 7 Men’s pressure to get married

Little P (male) and Xiaoying (female) came to Shanghai from other places. They had been in love for many years and finally were going to get married. But it was an annoying process to discuss the marriage arrangement with their parents. Xiaoying’s parents asked Little P and his family for 100,000 yuan as the bride price and demanded he buy an apartment for their wedding. Little P was only a young engineering technician and his parents were farmers, so they couldn’t afford this. The two sides were deadlocked for a long time. Xiaoying’s family, who took the apartment and a wedding banquet as conditions to test Little P’s love, insisted on the two requirements for the sake of her happiness. Little P finally compromised.

Rural weddings emphasize ostentation, and it is customary to invite relatives and friends for a two-day banquet, which is typical for the sake of keeping face. Little P did not rely on his parents for help, so he had to borrow money from relatives and friends and banks to cover the expenses for the wedding, including the banquet, the bride and an apartment. After the wedding, he had to pay back his friends and relatives as well as the bank mortgage. Therefore, Little P worked seven days a week, doing his regular work in a company on weekdays and taking two part-time jobs on weekends. He enjoyed no quality of life at all. His wife ran a clothes store, but the sales were not good and the shop was losing money. Because of this, Little P was under more pressure and often regretted having married Xiaoying, whom he thought to be good at running the household, but who unexpectedly, brought him additional trouble. Therefore, Little P often quarreled with Xiaoying. Being upset, he suffered from insomnia and poor appetite. Later, he was diagnosed with depression.

Buying an apartment, paying a bride price and holding a wedding banquet when getting married are often the “tests” that Chinese men have to go through and are also a disguised form of competitiveness logic. The customary Chinese marriage often creates a lot of pressure for the newly wed husband to pay back the money borrowed. If other troubles occur, the pressure can often lead to emotional problems.

Case 8 Depression from the images of “Good Man” and “Good Woman”

The beautiful and happy life is becoming more and more elusive in a changeable environment, which is manifested not only in youth, but also in middle-age. The so-called “good days” (happiness) should not focus on a good life itself, but on the realization of one’s ideals. The dreamed good life (happiness) of depressed middle-aged people seems to be perpetually delayed. There seems to be an inexplicable gap between their actual state of life and the rewards they deserve, leading to a midlife value crisis.

Old Zhang, a middle-aged man the author interviewed, said, “It is difficult to be a real man in China today.” What he meant is that in today’s highly competitive society, men often work day and night, including weekends, to maintain their so-called competitiveness. They have been assessed according to various aspects—being a good husband, a good father and a filial son, etc. These images of what is called a “true and upright men” have become a signifier2 which is associated with the “beautiful and good life”. Aspirations for a better life may often be unfulfilled because of various stressors—the competitive discourse, the irregular economy, huge living costs, mortgage payments, education costs, and the inability to balance work and family life. They always ask why the good life is so elusive, but they still try their best to create a better image to meet the expectations of society. If they fail to achieve this, they feel inexplicable guilt.

Not only middle-aged men but also middle-aged women can be depressed. In society, there is similar narrative of the “Good Woman” to that of the “Good Man”. To be a good woman is to be a good wife, a good mother and a good daughter.

Ms. Wang, in her fifties, was retired. She was diagnosed with depression. Her symptoms included sleep disorder, poor appetite and vexation. She felt it was too hard to continue her life, and she often thought of killing herself. Her depression originated from the difficulty of playing multiple roles. After her father had just died, her mother lived on her own. However, due to various inconveniences in life, Ms. Wang shouldered the responsibility to take care of her mother. She intended to take her mother to live with her family, but her mother was very stubborn and unwilling to live with Ms. Wang’s family. Ms. Wang had to go to her mother’s house to look after her every day. A single ride on bus to her mother’s house took her as much as two hours. After a long argument with her husband, they came up with a compromise: she lived with her mother most of the time and went home twice a month to see her husband and children. However, her husband was discontent with her and wondered why she was the only one to take care of her mother when she had four sisters. Ms. Wang told him that her sisters were responsible for covering her mother’s expenses, and that her sisters all had to work and had no time to take care of her mother. But her husband did not understand and thought she was not a good wife, nor a good mother. Ms. Wang was very aggrieved because she was unable to play well the three roles simultaneously. She attempted suicide and was luckily saved. Her basic logic is clear to us, that is, she hoped she could perform well the social roles imposed by social norms in spite of the difficulties in her real life. Even if some situations were beyond her and anyone’s control, she still thought that she should be held accountable.

The above cases reflect some specific depressive situations of contemporary Chinese. Statistical data also show similar emotional problems of Chinese people. In December 2006, the Beijing University Student Development Report jointly launched by the Communist Youth League Beijing Committee and the Beijing Federation of University Societies showed that the depression rate of university students in Beijing reached 23.66% (Li 2006). In the same year, the US magazine Fortune made a survey of mid-level and senior-level managers in China. More than 70% of the respondents felt that they were under excessive pressure, and 20% had obvious “job burnout” (News China, 2007). In addition, according to the “2008 Report on the Current Work Situations of Professionals in China” based on an online questionnaire to one million professionals, 61% of respondents felt relatively high pressure, nearly 2/3 had job burnout, and 70–80% of the police, medical and nursing staff and high-level managers felt that they were under great pressure (China Human Resources Development Website 2008). These figures show that young people and professionals in coastal areas where business is more developed and competition is more intense, as well as in metropolitan areas, are facing emotional problems. Competition and overwork seem to be part of the daily life of contemporary Chinese.

3.3 The Happiness and Mental Status of Chinese

Besides the above personal stories, some large-scale surveys have also examined the happiness and mental status of Chinese people. First, let us look at the survey findings on the relationship between happiness and economic development. There are two major views on the relationship between happiness and economic growth. One is the happiness-income paradox, the other the happiness-income synchronization.

The happiness-income paradox view claims that the improvement of material life and the subjective sense of life satisfaction (i.e. happiness) are not correlated or synchronized. Richard Easterlin formulated the “the happiness-income paradox” or “the Eastern paradox” in 1974. He suggested that in the short term, happiness varies directly with income both among and within nations, including developing countries, and the eastern European countries transitioning from socialism to market economy; but in the long run, there is limited possibility for economic growth to increase happiness. In other words, after happiness rises to a certain level with economic growth, it can show signs of stagnation or decline even though economic growth continues. In particular, Easterlin pointed out that in South Korea, Brazil and China people’s sense of happiness has decreased due to economic growth. His research team conducted an exclusive study on China’s subjective well-being in 2012 and found that China’s economic growth over the past 20 years had not resulted in a corresponding increase in people’s sense of life satisfaction (Easterlin et al. 2010). Other foreign surveys confirmed the happiness-income paradox. For instance, Appleton and Song (2008) found that from 1995 to 2002, the gap between the rich and the poor in China widened, and the life satisfaction of urban residents showed an obvious downward trend. Brockmann et al. (2009), based on the data from two Chinese surveys conducted as part of the World Values Survey (WVS) in 1990 and 2000, found that the average life satisfaction in China dropped by 0.9 point from 1990 to 2000, not increasing with China’s economic growth. Gallop has been conducting a long-term survey of the life satisfaction of Chinese people in recent years. The survey found that despite China’s skyrocketing economic growth, people’s life satisfaction shows a puzzling “flat line”. From 1999 to 2010, the average life satisfaction ratings of urban residents increased by 0.43 point, while those of the rural population decreased by 0.13 point. Although the number of people who were satisfied increased by 5% from 1999 to 2010, the increase was not salient among people with high incomes or low incomes (Grabtree and Wu 2011). Based on a sample of 15,000 individuals interviewed by the Gallup Organization, Kahneman and Krueger (2006) found that although ownership of color television sets, telephones and other material goods rose sharply, the percentage of people who said they were dissatisfied decreased by 15%. The United Nations World Happiness Report, jointly released with the Earth Institute of Columbia University in New York in May 2012, is perhaps the largest cross-national survey of people’s life satisfaction. The data in the report span from 2005 to 2011. The measures for the evaluation of happiness include GDP per capita, life expectancy, social trust, freedom of choice, degree of corruption and social tolerance. The three happiest countries are Denmark, Finland and Norway, all of which are Nordic countries. The unhappiest countries are concentrated in Africa and hit by poverty and war. The United States ranks 11th and China 112th. The survey also showed that in the underdeveloped countries, increasing GDP per capita is an effective way to improve people’s happiness; however, when GDP increases to a certain level, the correlation between GDP growth and happiness gets lower and lower due to marginal effects (Yu 2015).

Some studies conducted by Chinese scholars have also shown evidence of the happiness-income paradox. For example, Zhu and Yang (2009), using the World Values Survey data, found that the number of Chinese who felt satisfied increased from 68% in 1999 to 78% in 2001, but the average ratings decreased from 2.95 to 2.87. Xing (2011), based on seven-year (2002–2008) data from Shandong Province, found that happiness does not increase with the rise of average GDP and income.

Some scholars argue against the happiness-income paradox and for the view of happiness-income synchronization. For example, Veenhoven (1991) maintained that happiness is not relative, it is a natural and inborn emotion and depends on the gratification of basic needs. This is what he called the theory of absolute happiness (Veenhoven 1991). Using Gallup’s data from a global survey on human needs and satisfaction (Gallup 1976/77), Veenhoven (1991) found that the correlation between GNP per capita and average happiness reached 0.84 (p < 0.01). Veenhoven and Hagerty (2006), after analyzing life satisfaction in western European countries and developing countries such as India and Pakistan, pointed out that average happiness has increased considerably in the past 50 years in both the developing and developed countries. Stevenson and Wolfers (2008) analyzed data from nearly 100 countries and established a positive correlation between economic growth and happiness. Their findings were similar to that in Venhoven and Hagerty’s research (Stevenson and Wolfers 2008).

Domestic studies with similar findings include Junqiang Liu, Moulin Xiong and Yang Su’s large-scale quantitative research (Liu et al. 2012). In their article “National Sense of Happiness in the Economic Growth Period: A Study Based on CGSS Data” published in Chinese Social Science, they employed data from the China General Social Survey (CGSS) from 2003 to 2010 to analyze the development of the sense of happiness in China. They obtained 44,166 samples and categorized them into five different time periods. The conclusion was that Chinese people’s sense of happiness has been on the rise in the past 10 years, and that groups of different political identity, household registration (hukou), age, income, marital status and ethnicity have all had a growing sense of happiness. Economic growth may be a driving force for the rising sense of happiness; however, once the economy shrinks, people’s sense of happiness drops with it, the authors concluded prudently. In order to ensure harmonious economic and social development, more and more detailed surveys and research should be conducted on people’s sense of happiness (Liu et al. 2012).

Some studies confirm the happiness-income paradox, while some the happiness-income synchronization. The differences may result from different working definitions of happiness in the quantitative research or the different databases and time periods observed in these studies (Liu et al. 2012). Nevertheless, there seems to be more evidence for the happiness-income paradox, and those who argue for the happiness-income synchronization have also noticed the possibility of happiness changes under the “new normal” when the economy is no longer developing at a high speed.

Now let us turn from the survey of happiness to the development of mental illness in China. Statistics have revealed that the incidence of mental diseases in China has shown an upward trend in line with economic development. The incidence of mental diseases in China was 2.7% in the 1950s and witnessed a significant increase in the 1980s. Based on epidemiological investigation results in some areas, some experts speculated that the incidence of severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia and depression is now 13.47%. The total number of patients with severe mental illness is about 16 million. Schizophrenia is the most common, reaching 6 million, which means one in every 60 households, and at least 100,000 new schizophrenic patients appear every year. The prevalence of obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety disorder and phobia in Beijing is 35.18% (Cheng 2015). The increase shows that many adaptation problems have emerged in the process of transitioning from the planned economy to the market economy.

The Institute of Psychology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (2004) conducted a large-scale quantitative research project “A Study of the Main Social Stressors and Mental Health of Different Occupational Groups during the Social Transition”. The research team conducted investigations and analyses of more than 10 different occupational groups. In August 2000, the research team went to Kailuan Group Co. Ltd. in Hebei Province and conducted 46 meetings with more than 10 occupational groups, including miners, community workers, laid-off workers, ordinary clerks, teachers, doctors, senior-level leaders and mid-level leaders. They also organized a large number of individual interviews with these participants. After these, they got back 1408 questionnaires, with a total of 8545 kinds of pressure. Based on statistical analysis of the questionnaires and the content analysis of the interviews and meetings, the research group summarized 89 stressors in 10 categories from the over 8000 kinds of pressures. The 10 categories, namely, social environment, work stress, personal achievements, income, interpersonal relationships, social support, family, housing, children and personal life, are of universal significance. Since 2001, the 89 stressors in 10 categories have been tested in different provinces and cities across the country. In four years’ time, the occupational groups surveyed have been extended to include company employees, medical and health care staff, educators, farmers and civil servants, with a total of 7999 participants.

Some of the common pressures are considered as “characteristic pressures” in China’s social transition. For example, the social pressures are mainly brought about by the uncertainty of future social and economic development. In terms of work, the pressures from heavy workloads, labor intensity, work obligations and competition are more salient. In the social transition period, because of the reforms of the economic system and the labor system, employees suffered more and more competitive pressure.

The social pressures are mainly caused by the uncertainty about future social and economic development. The research team conducted a survey on the employees of a state-owned enterprise and found that four of the social pressures ranked at the top of 89 stressors. They are worries about social morality, worries about social security, worries about social stability and the impact of unfair social distribution.

The mental health status of the middle-aged working population is not brilliant either. A survey of the health status of 1000 middle-aged people in 2014 showed that they had a variety of health problems: overtime work, shortage of sleep, great pressure, no leisure and health care debts, frequent dreams, insomnia, difficulty falling asleep, frequent backaches and obvious memory decline. All these symptoms were common among the respondents. Half of them admitted that they were bad-tempered and anxious. These symptoms are a true portrayal of “job burnout” (Ma and An 2014). Job burnout is a state of mental exhaustion linked to long-term, unresolved, work-related stress. It is characterized by feelings of physical and mental exhaustions and feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion. It can occur in employees under great work pressure. Because of rapid social development and transformation, it has become “epidemic” among modern professionals. The quantitative findings above are in line with the findings we observed in the qualitative interviews we conducted.

3.4 Summary

Scholars have not reached a consensus on the relation between happiness and economic growth, yet it is a fact that the number of people with mental disorders has increased after China’s reform and opening up. Both macro statistics and individual cases show that China’s economic transition, together with the external pressure of neoliberal globalization, has resulted in more uncertainty.

Having reviewed the representative cases presented in the qualitative analysis in Sect. 3.2 and the statistics in the quantitative studies in Sect. 3.3, we further explore the question: What causes so many people of different ages to suffer from depression? To put it simply, the pervasive and increasingly fierce competition in modern society makes people suffer from academic and occupational burnouts, which is an important cause of the prevalence of depression. In developed countries, the transition from traditional society to a modern society was relatively gradual, while China has entered a high-speed modern society in a very short time. The previously stable planned economy with less mobility has been transformed into a highly competitive and fast-moving market economy. This change, together with the increasingly fierce competition in a large population, forces people to adapt to a more unstable life. In addition, traditional ethical concepts and social norms have also been incorporated into the competitiveness logic, thus forming a competitive discourse with Chinese characteristics.

We can see that under the Chinese competitive discourse, people of different ages are facing the same problem—the superego or the big Other exerts excessive repression on individuals so that they fail to conform to the symbolic identification and thus succumb to self-attack and depression.

In the narration of children and teenagers, education and employment are the central themes. In China, parents usually have high expectations of their children, hoping their children will have a bright future, so they usually invest a large amount of their savings in the children’s education. With the single-child policy since the 1980s, most parents had only one child and had higher expectations of and invested more in their child, which often caused their child to be highly stressed. In the context of prioritizing good academic performance and higher education, children are inculcated with the importance of excelling in examinations and other social competitions by their parents and teachers from an early age. Driven by this huge “superego”, every child has endlessly pursued the goals of attending esteemed schools and realizing their potential at all stages of education. They are happy if they realize their goals, but not long afterwards they start pursuing the next goal. They are on an endless journey to realize their goals. The idealized goal of young people is to complete all levels of education and to get a higher education degree, so as to obtain better employment opportunities in the highly competitive labor market. As a result, the whole society has constructed for them a path to a happy life: “only if you have good test scores can you enter a good school; only if you attend a good school (preferably abroad) can you find a good job; only if you find a good job can you make a lot of money; and only if you earn enough money can you have the capital to get married”. This path to happiness is internalized into the success model of the big Other, imposing itself on each individual.

Competition not only exists during education, but persists as a specter in job hunting and work. Besides the increased competitiveness caused by neoliberal globalization, China is also a populous country and the influence of the traditional imperial examination system still remains—various tests are used as a means to change fate. These factors make competition in China even fiercer. Due to the cutthroat competition, various differentiation “barriers”, such as education degrees, age and gender, are set up by employers, which further aggravates the anxiety of many relatively disadvantaged people. In addition, young people often need to pay for rent, bank mortgages and rising prices and maintain good relationships in the face-saving economy with Chinese characteristics. As a result, they fall under heavy life pressure. Many young people are trapped in the quagmire of the ideal-reality disparity due to the increasing employment pressure and the “diploma devaluation”. The book Jingyu, Taidu Yu Sheng Huo Ya li80 Hou Qing Nian De She Hui Xue Yan Jiu (Experience, Attitudes and Social TransitionA Sociological Study of the Post-80 Generation) (Li 2013) stated that the post-80 generation are fully confident in the future of the country, but have many complaints about the current society. They hope to change their fate with personal efforts, but they cannot escape from the bonds of greater social forces. The mainstream discourse in society advocates that anyone can “make it” as long as they work hard enough, while constantly exerting pressure on the already overworked and exhausted population (Li 2013). They have been told that they are now freer to choose their own road than ever before, but the road to success is actually full of restrictions. Those who fail to “make it” are dismissed as “Diaosi”(屌丝), a group of losers.3 In this populous country in the midst of neoliberal globalization, many people suffer unspeakable anguish and pressure. In the cases presented in this chapter, some young people feel themselves inferior and worthless, because they think that they cannot meet others’ expectations and are always disappointing them. “Overseas returnees” who used to be highly valued now become “returnees waiting for employment”, children and teenagers who are constantly frustrated by excessive competition have a sense of inferiority and worthlessness. They are completely unable to offer a sanctifying symbolic answer to the big Other who demands it. As a result, these people endure endlessly the living conditions rejected by the big Other. For them, this kind of rejection includes being rejected by others in real life. They may also have long felt they are rejected by society and considered as unfit for the world. Academic discrimination is another instance. The miserable narrative of young people presents a “value crisis”. In the fierce competition in education and the economy, children and young people feel that after strenuous effort, what they represent to the big Other for its evaluation is merely a pile of worthless rubbish. Therefore, what they face is foreseeable failure and profound disappointment (Ingersoll 2010).

The image of the “Good Man” enables the traditional division of gender roles to strengthen the gender norms in patriarchal society. As the chief breadwinner for the family, men with great power may also fall into depression when their role expectations are not fulfilled. The image of the “Good Woman” obliges women to devote themselves to maintaining family relationships, namely relationships with husbands, children and in-laws. When they fail to do that, resulting in family conflicts, they are prone to depression. As for middle-aged people, both men and women with unbearable and endless pain feel compelled to configure the reasons why the promises of the good life continue to fall so tragically short. They have to reinforce their faith in the sanctity and legitimacy of the symbolic order (the images of the “good man” and “good woman”) while they are forced to silently accept various negative phenomena occurring in the social transition (Ingersoll 2010). In short, the traditional gender-based role model may have enhanced the gender-based cultural norm that men attach more importance to their work achievements, while women devote more to maintaining close family relationships. If a couple fail to conform to the norm, they may suffer depression.

In addition, it is worth mentioning that although depression is more closely related to personal aspects like personality or life style, the cases with qualitative analysis in 3.2 are mostly about depression caused by stressors. The focus here is not on these people’s personality problems, but on why stressors increase and why they are sufficient to cause depression. Judging from these cases, the increase of stressors is related to the social structure of neoliberal globalization, such as the expansion of higher education, the rise of unemployment, the pressure of excessive competition, and the gap between rich and poor highlighted by migration flows. When there are more stressors now than in the stable planned economy period, depression is naturally more likely to occur.

Looking back on Chaps.  2 and  3, we would like to stress that this book by no means propagates vulgar economic determinism. In our analysis, we take into consideration the fact that the multiple effects of neoliberalism are actually complex. In fact, many possibilities can arise in neoliberalism. The micro-mechanisms may vary with the individuals’ different social networks and be manifested multi-dimensionally. It is not that neoliberalism will definitely lead to mental problems for every individual. As mentioned in Chap.  2, the family restructuring with Chinese characteristics has been trying to ease the family crisis after the nuclear family structure breaks up, and immigrants’ interpersonal network contributes to their mental well-being; but these measures do not inevitably produce positive results. It depends on the individuals themselves. This book does not deny the contribution of structuralism, but it also highlights that different sociological variables (gender, rank, race, culture, etc.) can lead to different depressive conditions. What should be pointed out here is that these variables are inescapably affected by neoliberal globalization in that they are stricken by drastic spatial-temporal changes. In other words, the spatial-temporal changes caused by neoliberal globalization do not necessarily lead to depression, but their influence on sociological variables is an important reference for the detailed analysis of depression. With the fact that the global prevalence of depression is increasing, the macro-structure of neoliberal globalization still has explanatory power, as it is different from the previous social structure with fewer mental disorders. In short, neoliberal globalization has produced a series of structural changes from the family, education system to the workplace and the country. In this context, each individual experiences structural changes at various levels, which affect the mental health of both individuals and those around them.


  1. 1.

    Martin (2007) explained the historical reasons for the shift from schizophrenia to bipolar disorder in American society. She attributed the occurrence of schizophrenia to the earth-shaking change of the traditional society to modern society and bipolar disorder to an era of complete market-oriented economy in which traditional reliance is completely lost and economic competition is fierce and ruthless. Schizophrenia is characterized by excessive detachment and no emotional fluctuation. It is mainly a speechless emotional abnormality which results from the fascinating and excessive stimulation in the 20th century, the anomie brought about by social changes, and anxiety and mental weakness caused by huge changes in personal adaptation to social changes.

  2. 2.

    Saussure’s structural linguistics regards the sign as being composed of two parts: signifier and signified. The signifier is the sound-image, while the signified is the entity and concept the signifier refers to. The relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary, but the signifier is fixed and mandatory with respect to the linguistic community that uses the signifier. The relationship between language signifier and signified is not natural and mutable. The sign combines both the meaning and the form. In terms of form, it is empty, while in terms of meaning, it is solid (Chinese version of Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, translated by Gao 1999).

  3. 3.

    See Sect.  5.4 for more explanation.


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© East China University of Science and Technology Press Co., Ltd. 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.East China University of Science and TechnologyShanghaiChina

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