How to Think About Happiness in New Ways

Relationships and communities will change because we have changed.

Posted Jan 24, 2021 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

Happiness is thought of differently in Japan.

What is the Japanese view of happiness?

Happiness is not the goal.  The goal is acceptance.

Ukeirere is a word used to describe acceptance.  In speaking to several local interpreters in Tokyo, this definition is the most accurate and useful:  Ukeireru is used by a mother with a child to accept something gently, fun to imagine inside oneself, accepting reality.

Thinking of one’s own needs as paramount is frowned upon; accepting others and the world matter most.  I have never been to a more relationship-driven country than Japan.  Trust and cohesion come about through relationships based on acceptance.

Acceptance in Japan comes about with near-constant awareness of how one’s actions must fit into the expectations of others.  Considering how what you do affects others and adds harmony.

In practical day-to-day terms, this means quiet trains and subway cars, a very low rate of civil lawsuits, no smoking zones in cities, super-polite and respectful discourse, and countless other ways to demonstrate that you accept the situation and are not putting your needs before those around you.

This has a notorious downside, but it also means that acceptance is the key to the creation of one of the world’s best public infrastructures:

The Japanese live longer on average compared with Americans and spend far less on health care than we do.  Health insurance is universal, income-based, and taken out of wages—residents can go to any doctor, and costs are capped.  According to the United Nations:

  • The quality of the health care system as measured by use of modern equipment in both clinic and hospital settings: Japan is ranked number one in the world. The United States is number 11. 
  • The quality of the health care system as measured by skill and competence of medical staff:  The U.S. is sixteenth. Japan is number one. 

Then, too, income disparity in Japan is lower.  According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2015, the ratio of the average income of the richest 10 percent to the poorest 10 percent is 4.5 percent, compared to 18.5 percent in the United States.

There is an acceptance of the idea that happiness means adequate and accessible healthcare, safe cities, and a baseline of income parity.  Accepting the needs of others informs public and healthcare policies; it’s not based on a model of self-interest.

Famously, middle schoolers in Japan have to memorize a poem by Kenji Miyazawa, which includes this line: “Put others before yourself.”

The downside is that individual needs often get buried in Japan with dangerous results.  You have hikikomori, people who don’t leave their room for decades.  You have johatsu, those who vanish to escape their families and communities.  And while the reportedly high rate of suicide in Japan isn’t that different from here—Japan is fourteenth globally at 18.5 percent and the United States is twenty-seventh with a rate of 15.3 percent; Japan and the U.S. are about the same as of 2015 with around 22 attempts for every suicide and 25 attempts to one suicide in the U.S. It’s still devastating.

Japan is far from ideal.

But combining the mindset of the United States, where the idea that individual needs are what matters most, with a mindset of a culture emphasizing acceptance, happiness is then understood as neither a personal goal nor one based on conformity.  A new mindset comes about instead.

In 1871, three years after the Meiji Restoration ended feudalism, the Japanese sent a delegation called the Iwakura Embassy to the United States and Europe to cherry-pick the best things from the West.

Then, too, the postwar Japanese constitution was enhanced by Beate Sirota Gordon and Eleanor Hadley, two Americans, who wrote the articles relating to civil rights.

Japanese added our Western mindset; perhaps we can add theirs to how we do things here.

As psychologist Dr. Hayao Kawai, who trained in California and Switzerland, wrote in Buddhism and the Art of Psychotherapy“In seeking a postmodern consciousness, we can...come to know each other and, to our benefit, find something new.”

Maybe it’s possible for us to adopt some of the Japanese mindset here.  What would it take for us to do so?

This can come about by applying acceptance day-to-day in very practical ways.  Actively considering others when we behave, whether it’s wearing masks for the sake of public safety, not using a cell phone on public transportation, being willing to think a lot about others in decision-making, or speaking respectfully to everyone.

Individual changes lead to building communities that are just as much about acceptance and harmony as they are about personal happiness.

That’s because this is a different way of looking at what it means to be happy.

When individuals change, systems and institutions change with them.  Should that happen, individualism within a framework of acceptance makes possible a new view of what we think it means to be happy.


Kawai, Hayao, and Murakami, Haruki (1996). Haruki Murakami Goes to Meet Hayao Kawai.  College Station: Texas A&M University Press.

Haas, Scott (2020). Why Be Happy? The Japanese Way of Acceptance. New York: Hachette.