Happiness: it's easy to think that it's a universal emotion. But is it really? In reality, cross-cultural research suggests the opposite. The relationship between different cultures and happiness is far from simple and can vary enormously from country to country.
In fact, and although it may come as a surprise, in some parts of the world happiness is not necessarily a desirable state. For example, in Chinese culture, funerals are a happy occasion and preparing for them can generate levels of enthusiasm that would be hard to understand in the West.
In this culture, people go to great lengths to prepare their funeral, choosing the clothes they'll wear, finding matching shoes and jewellery, planning the meals that will be served, etc. From a Western point of view, it would be easy to think they're preparing for their wedding instead!
The Chinese case is just one of many examples that show how happiness in different cultures is interpreted and experienced. In this article we’ll take a look at the fascinating concept of happiness from a cross-cultural point of view, since learning more about happiness in different cultures can help us understand better our own pursuit of contentment.
The more we learn about how happiness is understood across cultures, the more we realise that it's never straightforward to find common ground between different cultures and their well-being and joy.
This subject has drawn the attention of researchers for decades. For example, surveys like Pew’s Ladder of Life and The World Values Survey try to measure life satisfaction and well-being at a global level. Year after year, the United Nations' World Happiness Report ranks countries according to their happiness levels and tries to understand what makes people happy.
“While happiness exists in all cultures, its meaning and the way it's experienced vary enormously: what makes people happy in one country and can be different in another.”
All these surveys and reports offer interesting insights into the ‘ingredients’ of happiness across cultures. And while there’s no standard recipe, the findings suggest that there are pretty much two ways of understanding and experiencing well-being and happiness: the Western and the non-Western way.
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In Western societies, income and wealth are often considered important factors when it comes to achieving happiness. But does that mean that less well-off people are doomed to be unhappy? Not necessarily.
Culture clash: the meaning of happiness in China is different
In fact, some studies show that poor people are actually happier in Eastern countries, possibly because in those cultures happiness is closely associated with factors other than income and material possessions, such as personal relationships. It's also interesting to note how happiness levels seem to decline as developing countries become wealthier, as is the case in India, where people reported being less happy as their income levels grew.
However, a country’s development levels are not the only factor. Take two developed nations, like the United States and Japan, and you'll still see differences in how happiness is perceived. In the US, freedom and personal achievement are strong factors in the construction of happiness, whereas in Japan the concept is linked to good luck, moderation, and social harmony. This suggests that cultural values are important if we want to understand how people in different cultures find happiness.
Among those cultural values, family ties and social roles are top priorities for happiness in different cultures. Strong human connections and interpersonal relationships are important in places like Switzerland, Iceland, and Australia, just as much as they are in East Asian countries or in Latin America.
“Poor people are actually happier in Eastern countries, possibly because in those cultures happiness is closely associated with factors other than income and material possessions.”
Moreover, global studies confirm that happiness is built up of different blocks, and that the five most common “building blocks” (aside from income) are having social support, a healthy life expectancy, freedom, and being surrounded by an environment of trust and generosity.
The variation in how happiness is experienced across different cultures is also evident in language. Words like ‘happiness’ and ‘happy’ carry different connotations in Eastern and Western cultures and can't always be directly translated.
Global happiness: what makes people happy varies worldwide
For example, Mandarin has multiple words for “happiness” that aren't a perfect equivalent to the English concept, since they can mean anything from “good mood” to “having meaning in life” or “having a good life”. In fact, in Mandarin, happiness is also defined as “having a good death”, which would be rather unthinkable in English-speaking cultures!
The way happiness is defined in different languages also points at how differently it's experienced across cultures. For instance, the Danish concept of “lykke” is translated as “happiness”, but has very little to do with the way happiness is experienced in the United States, where it involves a state of celebration.
Similarly, the word for happiness in Hong Kong's Cantonese is linked to low arousal states and its meaning is closer to calm and relaxation rather than to celebration.
The factors contributing to happiness in different cultures are not the only thing that varies, since people's attitude towards happiness varies too. For most of us, pursuing happiness is a given, and we may make changes to our lives as part of that pursuit. But, in fact, happiness is not universally pursued in such an active way.
For example, people in Eastern cultures like China, Japan and Taiwan don't strive for happiness. In fact, they may actually be averse to the idea because they believe they'll be faced with misfortune if they do so. This is linked to cultural beliefs, like the idea that opposites go hand-in-hand or that having too much of a good thing will be punished.
“Among those cultural values, family ties and social roles are top priorities for happiness in different cultures.”
In other cultures, happiness is associated with luck or chance, so people may see no reason to actively pursue it as a goal. This is the case in Russia, Germany, France and Norway, where perceptions differ from the US concept of happiness, where it's seen as a human right worth pursuing. In other cases, pursuing individual happiness may cause conflict with other values, like preserving social harmony, so it's less important to chase it.
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Although all this may sound confusing, there's plenty to be learnt from the many shades of meaning taken by happiness in different cultures. While happiness exists in all cultures, its meaning and the way it's experienced vary enormously: what makes people happy in one country and can be different in another.
Family is key to happiness in many cultures (shutterstock/Monkey Business Images)
Indeed, the symbols of happiness in different cultures vary too, and the same goes for how happiness is expressed or perceived. Neither the concept of happiness nor the factors that contribute to it are absolute or universal.
But this isn't a bad thing. Taking a multi-dimensional and cross-cultural approach can make us rethink how we go about finding our personal happiness, challenge our assumptions, and ultimately make the journey towards happiness much more diverse and satisfying. ●
A social sciences graduate with a keen interest in languages, communication, and personal development strategies. Dee loves exercising, being out in nature, and discovering warm and sunny places where she can escape the winter.
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