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#HappinessStories | The unhappy Chinese man whose Paradise is for rent. VIDEO

Story published on

 July 17, 2019

#HAPPINESSTORIES. I’ve never met someone able to talk about his unhappiness so freely, half an hour into meeting a stranger in the park. I’ve never encountered a person who could laugh an honest laugh while stating his unhappiness: “Of course I’m not happy!”, Shawn replied, as if dismissing some outrageous claim I had made. So there we were, two people on a small bridge in Shanghai People’s Park. I was sitting on one side, while he was across from me. Between us, the world kept its Saturday stroll through the park, while we were bouncing big ideas between their feet: China, communism, democracy, happiness, mariage, travel.

This is the story of a self-declared unhappy man who discovered how to ‘rent’ his very own version of Paradise. Spoiler alert: it’s a paradise more and more people, myself included, are pursuing these days. (FULL STORY AFTER THE VIDEO BELOW)

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He saw me filming in the famous marriage market (more on this in a separate story) that takes place in the Shanghai People’s Park during the weekend. And then he joined us, my husband and me, on that tiny bridge across a pond. I don’t know if he wanted someone to practice his English with or if he was just looking for a human wall against which to throw his deepest feelings and listen to their echo. 

In any case, we started talking. Two hours later, we were still there, in the park, on the bridge, with people passing between us. “China and Romania used to be good friends”, was the kickoff for our conversation. It was strange to hear a Chinese man talk so freely about the pros and cons of dictatorships, or “practicing socialism and capitalism”. Every now and then, people would stop and smile looking at us debating the world. 

The money-happiness equation

Shawn – that’s his English name, of course – is a lawyer who lives in Shanghai. A very prosperous one, as he enjoys to point out several times. He says he comes from the Chinese nobility – someone in his family – his mother maybe? I don’t recall – was supposed to be a princess or the likes. They lost everything during Mao. Still, look at him now, rich and successful, the perfect exponent of the new prosperous, powerful and confident China.

But, as Shawn found out, there is one catch to capitalist happiness. It doesn’t matter if you find it in the world’s most successful autocracy or the most enviable democracy. As wise men everywhere have discovered from the days of yore, money does not equal happiness. The equation is more complicated than that and when math gets nuances, things get tiresomely complicated. That’s life in a nutshell. And now we return to the mini-bridge. Shawn the prosperous lawyer is unhappy. He tells me that himself. Several times. He’s quite determined about it.

He goes on talking about his marriage and how important it is to go through life hand in hand with someone who understand what you do and where your passions are. Can’t argue with that. Shawn is a wise lawyer.

Scientifically proven: travelling makes you happier

A wonderful life

“To live in the developed world is to live in a consumerist society. Although the broader forces that created this society have led to unprecedented material abundance, scholars have maintained that these benefits have come at a significant psychological cost. An important question, then, is how these psychological costs can be minimized. This research indicates that experiential purchases provide greater satisfaction and happiness because: (1) Experiential purchases enhance social relations more readily and effectively than material goods; (2) Experiential purchases form a bigger part of a persons identity; and (3) Experiential purchases are evaluated more on their own terms and evoke fewer social comparisons than material purchases.”

There IS something that makes him utterly happy. He talks about his love for travel with a passion unequaled by many in the ‘travel community’. When he travels, he explains, he feels in Paradise. Who says you can’t buy your ticket to Heaven, albeit for a 10-day all inclusive stay? 

 “When I see the differences in environment, in culture and people, I feel very excited, very happy, very happy! You know?” I do know. The science community knows it as well. By this point, there has been extensive research showing that buying experiences – travel included – gives you much more happiness than purchasing things. 

 When I tell Shawn we’ve been travelling across Asia for three months, I see him re-translating my words to make sure he didn’t misunderstand. “Three months?! Wow…” And he’s lost for words for some seconds. Oh, the beautiful glee of envy in his eyes.

 “Travelling always makes me calm down, it makes me happy”, Shawn says. “So I would advise people to travel around the world. It’s very significant”.


The Chinese travel boom

How much international tourists spent in 2018
  • China: $277.3bn
  • USA: $144.2bn
  • Germany: $94.2bn

Source: United Nations World Tourism Organisation/via The Telegraph

Chinese spending

Chinese consumers spent $4.7tn in 2017, up from $3.2tn in 2012, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, cited by Financial Times. This is general consumer spending, not just on tourism.

In less than two decades, the number of Chinese tourists has skyrocketed. It doesn’t take a nomad to know that. You’ve noticed it in your travels, wherever and however often they are.

China has now become the most important outbound market for travelling, as per population and spending, according to The Telegraph. The numbers are just incredible: from 10.5 million overseas trips made by Chinese citizens in 2001 to almost 150 million in 2018*.

It’s predicted than, a decade from now, this number will reach 400 million. It’s not only good news for happiness-kind, but this also impacts a debate that will grow in the coming years: overtourism.

The rise in Chinese tourists


MILLION overseas visits/year


MILLION overseas visits/year


MILLION overseas visits/year

The amount of money the Chinese spend when they go on holiday abroad is equally impressive: over 277 billion dollars in 2018, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation. It is almost 28 times more than in 2000 and close to double what American tourists spent in 2018.

 What’s even more incredible is that China is a country where, according to data from 2016, only 9 percent of the population owns a passport. That’s roughly 120 million people, a number that some very optimistic voices expect will double by 2020. Even without that, China is forecasted to account for a quarter of international tourism by 2030.

In an authoritarian country that made a historic experiment from keeping people in check by giving them prosperity like never before, these numbers show a rise in a new genre of the experience-buying trend. This might very well be an AirBnB’ed version of happiness.

(*there’s a nuance here: these numbers include Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan)

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