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How Does Culture Affect Our Happiness?

Happiness and its many tastes.

Adrianna Calvo/
Source: Adrianna Calvo/

Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence. — Aristotle

Within the framework of psychological research on happiness, a happy person is characterized as someone who “has pleasant feelings most of the time and feels satisfied with his/her life overall” (Oishi & Gilbert, 2016, p. 54). One of the gifts of cross-cultural travel is the glimpse into other ways of happiness. We all want to be happy. Yet, with a deepened intimacy with a culture comes the recognition that happiness — an emotion that many theorists consider the most universal of emotions — has its own distinct connotations and circumstances when observed through a different cultural lens.

The differences may be subtle. After all, we all, as Maya Angelou writes, need joy as we need air. But those nuances are what give happiness its own culturally refined taste, whether tinged with the melancholy of passing seasons in one corner of the world or exuberance of familial gatherings in another. So, how are we, as a human family, all alike in our happiness and how is our interpretation of happiness dependent on our cultural contexts?

Culture's influence on happiness

In the past few decades, scores of studies have explored the influence of culture on happiness or Subjective Well Being (SWB). There is a lot that we share when it comes to our experience of happiness. Research spanning four decades, 182 countries, 97 studies, for instance, has shown that out of seven discrete emotions (anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise), happiness is the most accurately recognized expression across cultures. Cross-cultural convergence has also been reported in appraisal mechanisms, with similar circumstances around the world appearing to make us joyful, including situations and events that are pleasant, conducive to our goals, needs, and desires, and those that elicit our internal attributions. We also express similar physiological behavior when we are happy (e.g., smiling/laughing, engaging in approach behavior). People across cultures consider happiness as one of their most cherished personal goals. Even national campaigns and movements are being launched for building happier societies (e.g., Action for Happiness).

Meaning of happiness across cultures

What, then, is happiness to people around the world and how does culture shape our experience of it? To most Americans, happiness is an unalienable human right and is commonly associated with positive experiences as well as personal achievements. When asked to describe features of happiness, the Japanese, on the other hand, alluded to social harmony, the transient nature of happiness, along with its socially disruptive consequences. Cross-cultural studies on ideal affect have revealed that while Americans associate happiness with high arousal positive states such as elation, enthusiasm, and excitement, Hong Kong Chinese define happiness through more low arousal positive states (e.g., calm and relaxation).

There are also differences in the meaning that the term happiness holds across cultures. For instance, researchers have observed that in certain languages, including Polish, Russian, German, and French, happiness conjures up states and conditions that are more rare compared to English. In fact, a meta-analysis of the definition of happiness among 30 nations revealed that elements of luck and fortune are at least partially included among 80% of the nations’ understanding of happiness, just as they were in ancient China and Greece, where happiness was considered a fatalistic concept, a divine gift that had to do with luck and fortune. (In the US, the definition of happiness no longer includes the notion of good luck and fortune, as it once did in the 1800s.)

In some cultural contexts, the perspectives on happiness are more ambivalent. For instance, Confucian beliefs about the common roots of happiness and unhappiness encourage a less obligating attitude towards being happy among many East Asian cultures. Thus, the Chinese think less often about how happy and satisfying their lives are compared to Americans, while the Japanese traditionally hold a hesitant attitude towards happiness. Still, in other cultures, individuals are averse or fearful of happiness, based on their convictions that misfortune often lurks behind joy. (This dialectic view of happiness is frequently encountered in literature. “Live with a steady superiority over life,” writes Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “don't be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn for happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn't last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing.")

The pursuit of happiness across cultures

Cross-cultural differences also emerge in the effects that the pursuit of happiness has on well-being. Recent studies have revealed that the conscious pursuit of happiness is associated with negative consequences on well-being for Americans, leaving them with feelings of loneliness and disappointment. On the other hand, the pursuit of happiness did not predict well-being outcomes among German participants and was associated with increased well-being levels in Russia, Japan, and Taiwan. A possible explanation for these cross-cultural variations has been attributed to differences in self-construals (independent vs. interdependent), as well as the culture’s degree of collectivism. Namely, in collectivistic cultures where relationship harmony predicts SWB, happiness is pursued in more socially engaging ways, compared to individualistic cultures, where the focus on the self is stronger and self-esteem is an important predictor of life satisfaction.

In the end, there are as many (John Locke called them “various and contrary”) routes to happiness as there are interpretations of it around the world. Research has pointed a few road-signs towards its direction, including positive social engagement, self-acceptance, as well as focusing on other important contributors to well-being such as meaning and purpose. Still, the assortment of essentials for finding happiness for each one of us appears colored and diverse (the Dalai Lama suggests compassion; David Steindle-Rast encourages gratefulness; WB Yeats believed in growth; Antoine de Saint-Exupéry recommends creative action; and for Albert Einstein — happiness is a table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin). But as psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes, “the joy we get from living, ultimately depends directly on how the mind filters and interprets everyday experiences” (2002, p. 9), echoing the sentiments of the Greek philosopher Democritus, who over 2400 years before him deemed that a happy life is one that is not solely dependent on luck or external circumstances, but rather on individual’s “cast of mind” (in Kesebir & Diener, 2008, p. 117). Perhaps, then, while we court happiness like a capricious lover or wait for it (im)patiently to arrive like a fortuitous dinner guest, we could recognize the mediating role of the self between our cultures and our well-being, keeping in mind the saying: If you want to be happy, be.


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