Life Satisfaction in Urbanizing China

Publication Date: 
August 2015
Cities 49: 88-97


Although Durkheim, Simmel, and other early social theorists posited causal links between urban life and individual despair or distrust, most contemporary analyses of subjective well-being attribute variations primarily to individual characteristics. However, China’s recent warp-speed urbanization requires a more dynamic and multi-level analysis that simultaneously models individual and geographic attributes. Using a representative survey conducted in 2011 of adults living in urban China, we find that, while age, marital status, and household wealth have an impact on life satisfaction, the characteristics of the surrounding county or city district, the size of the city, as well as the route by which an individual became an urban resident, often have an independent impact. Our results indicate that after controlling for individual socio-demographic characteristics, health status, and household wealth, the new urbanites (rural-to-urban migrants and in situ urbanized rural residents) who settle in cities with urban populations between 200,000 and 500,000 are more satisfied with their lives than those who settle in either larger or smaller cities. We argue that in China, where urban centers vary greatly in size, research on individual life satisfaction should factor in the characteristics of the urban location and the means by which individuals become urban residents. Our work suggests a new research and policy direction for small cities undergoing urbanization and their future trends.