Is Our Search for Happiness Killing Us?

How a culture defines happiness can define how it acts in a crisis.

Posted Dec 09, 2020

America’s search for happiness could be killing us. That irony is tucked into research on the meaning of happiness around the world, published today in the journal PLOS ONE. Western cultures see happiness as being centered around us—it’s what makes us as individuals feel good. Eastern cultures, by contrast, are more community-centered, looking at interpersonal connections and feelings of harmony.

Could this explain the approach to COVID-19 in the United States and in Japan? Mask-wearing has become a political statement in the U.S., with a vocal minority maintaining that mask mandates infringe on their personal freedoms.

By contrast, Japanese citizens have long been comfortable with masks, covering their faces for their own health and the health of others. Japanese culture, overall, has more emphasis on the importance of the community and less on the individual.

And, as of this writing, the U.S. has had 4669 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 citizens, whereas Japan has had only 128 per 100,000. That’s a 97 percent reduction in cases of the virus in Japan as opposed to the U.S. Death rates are equally stark: 89 per 100,000 in the U.S. compared to 1.8 per 100,000 in Japan. That is, the death rate in the United States is 49 times that in Japan. All figures are adjusted to acknowledge population disparities between the two countries.

Mask-wearing has been shown to be highly effective in fighting the disease, yet resistance persists in the United States.

Does it just come down to what we think makes us happy? Researchers in the PLOS ONE study did not look specifically at responses to COVID-19, studying instead the cultural definition of happiness, specifically comparing the Eastern and Western approaches.  

Most research on happiness in the past, they note, has been based on the Western definition, which is “a historically Protestant, self-centered world view that emphasizes personal worthiness and hard work to obtain positive outcomes, and sees happiness as a personal achievement.”

By contrast, in the East Asian world view, “the self is more entwined with others, such that personal happiness depends on connections in social relationships,” writes lead author Gwen Gardiner, of the University of California, Riverside. “The Eastern ideologies of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism emphasize the interconnectedness of everyone and everything, prioritizing harmony and balance over individual achievement.”

The differences are not entirely clear-cut, though, Gardiner emphasizes, with American and Japanese cultures increasingly overlapping. In the study, many American respondents valued Eastern measures of happiness, and vice versa. Nevertheless, there can be a disconnect between what individuals in a culture say they value and how they act on those values, she says.

“Our participants can understand and recognize the different ways of being happy but ultimately when you look at what people are actually doing to be happier their behaviors may still diverge depending on cultural context.”   

Our different concepts of happiness could also point to increasingly deep divisions within the United States. A majority of American participants in a recent National Geographic poll reported that they regularly wear masks, a number that continues to grow. Most citizens, then, can act out of a sense of community. The vocal minority, though — those entrenched in feel-good, self-first actions — can still do a great deal of damage. Our divisions, then, may not be between cultures but within our own country.

And those divisions could come down to our definition of happiness and how we act on it.