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3 Ways That Culture Shapes Happiness and Well-Being

New research suggests that Americans should resist ethnocentrism.

This is part of a series of blog posts from chapters of Designing Positive Psychology, a book edited by Dr. Ken Sheldon, Dr. Michael Steger, and myself.

It was once believed that researchers could study citizens of one country, typically young, white, well-behaved, well-to-do college students in America, and then apply these psychological insights to the rest of the globe. Thanks to recent research, we know this is false. Here are 3 ways in which culture plays an important role in personality and well-being.

1. The need for positivity

Every human being is going to be beset by moments of rejection, ingratitude, aggression, and other annoyances at the hands of others. Every human being receives unwanted negative feedback, fails at academic and health related goals, and notices discrepancies between who they are and hoped to be. What happens in the aftermath of stressors in everyday life? How many positive events are required to bounce back from adversity? Interestingly, the answer changes depending on who you are studying and from what country. For White adults in the United States, on average, it required 2 positive events (such as a compliment or a funny movie) to offset 1 negative event. It required only 1.3 positive events to get the same mitigating effect for Asian-Americans in the United States or Koreans. And for those living in Japan, only 1 positive event offset the psychological pain of a negative event.

There are several possible explanations for why these cultural differences are pronounced. First, European Americans spend more time obsessing over positive emotions and positive events in their life than those from East Asia. For instance, for Asians, both the most and least satisfying days contributed to life satisfaction in a given week whereas only positive events were deemed useful to European Americans. Second, in Asian countries, people's social roles and community have a larger influence on their sense of identity and self-worth than in America. This collectivist mentality has a downstream effect such that negative, personal events carry less weight - unless of significance to their social identity. Americans might take themselves too seriously which in turn, sacrifices their self-worth and well-being for low-stakes events. Third, based on a long history of philosophical traditions, East Asians can better tolerate contradictory views of themselves (such as maintaining an image of being self-compassionate and self-critical), and moments that blend positive and negative feelings (such as the sadness of losing a friend while grateful for the lessons learned).

2. The interpretation of gifts received

Gratitude occurs when an individual attends to the benefits and gifts that are attributable to the kindness of others. Gratitude has been associated with less frequent negative emotions, more frequent positive emotions, greater meaning in life, better strategies to cope with life stress, and healthier social relationships. By intentionally attending to moments of gratitude each day over the course of a week, individuals experience greater well-being for periods ranging from one week to six months.

Although there is a growing body of evidence for the efficacy of gratitude interventions, the assumption has been that these benefits are distributed equally across the world. More recent work suggests that this is not the case and perhaps we should be careful before prescribing interventions primarily conducted on European Americans to the rest of the world. While interventions to increase kindness (in which participants do something nice for friends, family, or strangers) has been shown to have similar benefits on well-being for Americans and adults from Asian countries, this is not the case for gratitude interventions. For Americans asked to write letters of gratitude to whom they are thankful, well-being increased 3 weeks into the intervention and continued to increase 3 weeks later. For South Koreans asked to write letters of gratitude, their well-being declined 3 weeks into the intervention and decline even further 3 weeks later.

One reason put forth for these cultural differences is that South Koreans asked to reflect on gifts received are reminded that their contributions to their group, community, or nation are suboptimal. A feeling of indebtedness ensues, pressuring them to be less self-focused and more other-focused. While this may lead to virtuous behavior, in terms of kindness, generosity, and leadership, the extrinsic motivation behind these actions detracts from their psychological and physical health.

These provocative findings do not imply that gratitude is unhealthy for South Koreans, rather they offer insight into what might be necessary to increase the likelihood of an effective intervention. Perhaps psychoeducation on the function of gratitude is needed and it is insufficient to simply tell people to write about what they appreciate in everyday life. A good place to start would be a discussion about the find-remind-bind model of Dr. Sara Algoe. In short, gratitude helps us find new people that are worthy of adding to our social circle, reminds us of healthy relationship partners that are worthy of additional time and attention, and increases a sense of closeness and belonging with gift givers through a bind of positive thoughts, feelings, and behavioral intentions.

3. The presence of a stable, consistent self

A summary of existing research suggests that personality traits increase in continuity as adults get older, such that by the age of 50, there is an over 85% chance that you will remain the same relative to your friends in extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, and conscientiousness in 7 years. However, most of this work has been conducted with American samples. Several researchers found that adults from Japan and Korea showed less consistency in their personality traits compared with Americans. In one study, participants were given a questionnaire asking for self-descriptions - a task that was completed alone, in the same room as one peer, in the same room as a group of peers, or in front of an authority figure. Japanese self-descriptions varied more depending on who else was in the room compared with Americans. In another study, when asked to describe their personality attributes in the company of 5 different people (close friend, parents, authority figure, someone at least 5 years younger, and a stranger), Korean adults reported much less consistency across these social contexts; moreover, behaving consistently across these social contexts was more strongly linked with happiness (positive and negative affect, life satisfaction) for Americans than for Koreans.

Our knowledge about personality and ability to intentionally change hinges on the definitions held. This body of work suggests that there are culturally specific definitions of self and identity. To understand and promote well-being, these definitions must be clarified.

Much of what we know about happiness, well-being, and personality has arrived from conducting research on the Western world. There have been many requests from scientists to start paying attention to other cultures. However, most of these requests fail to offer a case for why culture matters. In this post, I offer interesting concrete reasons from cross-cultural researchers. My hope is that this research inspires additional questions about what is universal to the human species, what is unique to particular subgroups, and what is it that makes each person unique from any that ever lived.

Several of the ideas in this post have been drawn from Chapter 7, authored by Shigehiro Oishi and Jaime Kurtz, in Designing Positive Psychology.

***What am I reading that is inspiring me? I nabbed an early copy of The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier. One of my favorite authors and this treatise on the best questions to ask yourself and other people is only $5 on kindle!

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, and professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His new book is The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self - not just your “good” self - drives success and fulfillment. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops, go to: