The more that I learn about different cultures, the more that I become fascinated by cultural differences. Each person has a unique cultural heritage consisting of a blend of different cultural influences. However, research suggests that there are a couple of dominant cultural orientations across the world.
The individualistic cultural orientation generally values individuals distinguishing themselves, relative to others. This is seen in values to self-actualize, fulfill one’s potential, achieve self-esteem, reveal one’s unique talents, stand up for one’s personal rights, and take personal responsibility for one’s actions. Although it may be difficult to recognize, this orientation uniquely is promoted in the United States, particularly among men (but increasingly among women as well). In contrast, the collectivistic cultural orientation generally values the honor of the group (for example, one’s family, community, tribe, or country). This orientation is promoted most clearly in Asia and Africa. Both orientations are represented in key cultural institutions (for example, democratic vs. communist governmental structures) and practices (sending kids to day care when young while parents work vs. staying with them).
It is easy to believe that the values taught to us are universal values. Often times, however, they are culture-specific. For instance, people in the United States often do not recognize that they have internalized a purpose in life heavily influenced by their culture (i.e., distinguishing themselves, relative to others), ironically not as freely chosen as individuals might like to believe. It seems helpful to reflect on whether this really fits deeper values that someone might hold. Once there is a recognition that other cultures possess different values, it is particularly natural to think through what values someone might like to follow. In my view, I often have tried to consider how to take the best of different values in order to achieve a good life.
Clearly, the freedom and opportunities associated with an individualistic cultural orientation is the envy of the world. This probably is part of the reason why the United States historically has received so many immigrants. The focus on independence also encourages individuals to achieve. American society obviously has benefited from this achievement, as seen in the tremendous wealth that has been attained. On the other hand, the focus on standing out in excellence brings with it many disadvantages, including an unhealthy kind of pride, isolation, and the stress of trying to do well in everything. In contrast, a collectivistic cultural orientation often possesses the advantages of interconnectedness among people and a more laid-back lifestyle.
I often wonder how I can appreciate the opportunities I have in the United States, choosing what fits best for me, while at the same time rejecting strong values for pride, achievement, materialism, and isolationism to have a more balanced lifestyle filled with strong relationships with family and friends. For example, my wife and I have made it a priority to regularly get together with a group of friends. If there is something that goes wrong in their lives, we prioritize this group, watching their kids, giving them rides, or whatever they need. We also have decided to use Sundays to practice a traditional “Sabbath” in which we attend church, hang out with family and friends, do little or no work, and refrain from use of technology. This is an amazingly peaceful and restorative time for us, and allows us to be more effective the rest of the week.
Sometimes, I’ve struggled with the meaning of my life, and how to index whether my life is well spent. I’ve sometimes sought accomplishments as an objective indicator of this, but have found that this kind of external focus brings with it considerable stress. Thinking through the best of other cultures gives me a different perspective, and makes me think that the real evidence of a good life comes in the form of less conventional indices, such as birthday wishes, holiday cards, and vivid memories with loved ones.
Andy Tix teaches Psychology at Normandale Community College. He also regularly blogs about links between Christian spirituality and Psychology at The Quest for a Good Life.