On the surface, Hector’s (Simon Pegg) time in China in Hector and the Search for Happiness (2014) doesn’t seem as though it provided much data towards his goal of understanding happiness. While there, he meets a millionaire businessman named Edward (Stellan Skarsgård) who shows him a good time, accidentally falls for a girl he didn’t know was a hooker, hikes the Himalayas, and spends a little time with a monk. But Hector’s time in China actually taught him some very important, and very interesting things about happiness.
It’s crucial to remember that Hector viewed the world from a child’s perspective. Though he is a doctor and a reasonably successful person, he never emotionally evolved past childhood, which means almost everything that happens to him is a lesson in worldview.
In China, Hector possibly learned more about happiness from the businessman than the prostitute. During a large, expensive dinner with Edward, Hector asks if his money makes him happy. Edward's response is interesting - it’s not the money that makes him happy, it’s the act of earning it. “Maybe I’ll retire in another 20 million,” he tells Hector. “But I’ve been saying that for the last 100 million.”
Edward is unapologetic about his wealth. He finishes the conversation saying retirement would be death to him - working and earning money are what gives him the greatest pleasure in life. Having the luxury of money is great, of course, but he finds more happiness in the chase than the rewards that follow. His self-esteem depended on rising to the challenges that he faced in business, overcoming them, and sowing the fields of his labor.
It’s an understandable viewpoint. Why do any millionaires and billionaires continue to work? Because their happiness comes from what they’ve done to create their fortunes.
The prostitute Ying Li (Ming Zhao) is the mirror of Edward, and taught Hector about the opposite situation. She feigns happiness as part of her job. As a prostitute, her business centers around the manipulation of human emotion. Her career leaves her empty, emotionally scarred, shut out by her family, and lonely. She finds a moment of happiness with Hector when he invites her to lunch, only to have it immediately ripped away by her pimp.
From her, Hector learns that exterior happiness is not indicative of true happiness. Ying Li appeared as a perfect specimen to him during their first night together, but everything about her was a facade.