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Confucian Stress

by Ashok Sethi , 10.12.2015

Money (perceived lack of it) the biggest cause of stress in the world!

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, has declared that he will give away 99% of his shares in the company, worth $45 billion, for philanthropic purposes. He is in good company, as several other billionaires, including Warren Buffet and Bill gates have pledged their wealth to charity. Perhaps the over-abundance of money brings a feeling of responsibility, or even burden and stress, driving the wealthy to philanthropy. However unlike Zuckerberg, for the general public it is the absence of money rather than its excess that causes stress. In a global GfK investigation into what causes stress, a conversation with over 27,000 consumers indicated that a feeling that they do not enough money, is the biggest culprit.

Chinese blame themselves for their stress

Interestingly, the Chinese differ from the rest of the world, by saying that it is not money that causes them stress, but it is the relentless pressure that they put on themselves that troubles them.

In fact, money is not directly mentioned as the top three causes of stress - the other two irritants being "not getting enough sleep" and "not having time for the things that they want to do". The "self-caused stress" also seems a strong phenomenon in other developed East Asian countries with Confucian influence, including South Korea and Japan. The relentless strife and pressure to get ahead in life is a reality in several Asian countries, and has several sociological and cultural underpinnings. China and other Asian countries, have undergone transformational economic development in a very short period of time - in fact China is very much still in the midst of it, and is far from a developed nation economically. In this environment of progress and development, no one wants to be left behind, and the pressure to continue to move ahead is high.

Confucian values also play a role. In a ranking of 50 values, in GfK Consumer Life (a syndicated study), the Chinese rank “duty” as the 2nd most important, and “working hard” as the 5th most important.

In the US, the same values are ranked 19th and 44th respectively. On the other hand, the Americans rank “enjoying life” as the 5th most important value, whereas the Chinese rank it only as number 13.  Clearly the Chinese values are instrumental in driving and pressurizing them - often stressfully.

Isn’t it all about money in the end?

Of course one can argue that the eventual goal of this self-imposed pressure to succeed is money. While it may be true, interestingly it is not the lack of money which bothers the Chinese (also the South Koreas and the Japanese) but the fact that they must strive hard and exert themselves to the fullest to achieve that final goal. This perhaps indicates a feeling of confidence in their ability to achieve the final goal of making enough money for their needs. Chinese have a self-assurance that they will finally make it, but they realize the journey could be hard and stressful - with stress being a direct result of their ambition and desire to surge ahead. Secondly, it could also indicate a lower obsession with money alone as the indicator of success and a belief in multi-dimensional concept of having made it.

Help me make it through the night

For marketers, this mindset has a clear implications. Products and brands, which can alleviate the stress, without diluting the confidence and the focus on success, would be welcome. Brands need to support the consumers in their journey towards their goal, offering support and comfort, making the path more bearable and less stressful. Communication needs to portray brand use and brand benefits to alleviate the Confucian stress caused by ambition, duty and toil. Successful brand communication will convince the consumer that they will reach their goal, but they can still smile, enjoy the life’s pleasures and relax in the journey.

For more information, please contact Ashok Sethi, Managing Director of GfK Consumer Experiences in China, at ashok.sethi@gfk.com.