Keeping up with the Wangs: individual and contextual influences on mental wellbeing and depressive symptoms in China

Adele A Wang*, Claire M A Haworth , Qiang Ren

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
23 Downloads (Pure)


Background: In recent decades, China has experienced dramatic changes to its social and economic environment, which has affected the distribution of wellbeing across its citizens. While several studies have investigated individual level predictors of wellbeing in the Chinese population, less research has been done looking at contextual effects. This cross-sectional study looks at the individual and contextual effects of (regional) education, unemployment and marriage (rate) on individual happiness, life satisfaction and depressive symptomatology. 
Methods: Data were collected from over 29,000 individuals (aged 18 to 110, 51.91% female) in the China Family Panel Studies, and merged with county level census data obtained from the 2010 China Population Census and Statistical Yearbook. To explore contextual effects, we used multilevel models accounting for the hierarchical structure of the data. 
Results: We found that a one-year increase in education was associated with a 0.17% increase in happiness and a 0.16% decrease in depressive symptoms. Unemployed men were 1% less happy, 1% less satisfied with life and reported 0.84% more depressive symptoms than employed men while minimal effects were seen for women. Single, divorced and widowed individuals had worse outcomes than married individuals (ranging from 2.96 to 21% differences). We found interaction effects for education and employment. Less educated individuals had greater happiness and less depressive symptoms in counties with higher average education compared to counterparts in less educated counties. In contrast, more educated individuals were less satisfied with life in more educated counties, an effect that is possibly due to social comparison. Employed individuals had lower life satisfaction in areas of high unemployment, while levels were constant for the unemployed. A 1% increase in county marriage rate was associated with 0.33 and 0.24% increases in happiness and life satisfaction respectively, with no interactions. We speculate that this effect could be due to greater social cohesion in the neighbourhood. 
Conclusions: Our results show that policies designed to improve employment and marriage rates will be beneficial for all, while interventions to encourage positive social comparison strategies may help to offset the negative effects of increasing neighbourhood average education on the highly educated.
Original languageEnglish
Article number611
Number of pages14
JournalBMC Public Health
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 29 Mar 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
RAHW was supported by a studentship from the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and is currently supported by the ESRC Postdoctoral Fellowship (ES/T007370/1). This project was funded by an ESRC Overseas Institutional Visit award. This study was supported by the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Bristol. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care. QR is support by the Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 71461137001).

Funding Information:
We wish to thank the participants in the China Family Panel Studies. We also wish to thank members of the Institute of Social Science Research, Peking University.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022, The Author(s).

Structured keywords

  • Physical and Mental Health
  • Mental Health Data Science


  • China
  • Wellbeing
  • Contextual
  • Depression
  • Happiness
  • Life satisfaction


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