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December 22, 2020
by Elizabeth Pratt

Happiness Varies Depending On Cultural Context

December 22, 2020 08:00 by Elizabeth Pratt  [About the Author]

What it means to be happy varies depending on where you live. 

Researchers from the University of California Riverside found that different questions need to be asked to gauge happiness in Asian and Western countries. 

“We were always interested in studying happiness across cultures but when I came across a paper on Interdependent Happiness, I realized that we would first need to assess the best way of measuring happiness around the world,” Gwen Gardiner, PhD, lead author of the study and a graduate of David Funder’s Situations Lab told Theravive. 

“We couldn't just assume that our perception of what it means to be happy would apply everywhere else. And making sure that concepts mean the same thing across groups is particularly important for cross-cultural researchers. If your participants are interpreting your questions to mean different things then you are going to get different results, not because one group is necessarily happier than another but because one group defines happiness as meaning something other than what you asked.” 

Historically, studies in happiness have been based on the Western view of happiness, which mainly focuses on thrills and is largely self-centred.

“The Western view of happiness focuses solely on the self and is what we would call "higher arousal" meaning strong emotions (think of how Americans might respond to the question of "how are you doing?" with the higher arousal answer of "great!" or "awesome!" rather than a lower arousal but still positive answer of "fine" or "good"). It also involves a direct comparison with other people - you are only very happy if you think that you are happier than most other people on average,” Gardiner said. 

“The big focus of this paper was testing two competing theories on how to measure happiness. One is based on the Western viewpoint of happiness, which is a very positive, independent way of understanding happiness, while the other is an Eastern view of happiness, which is a calmer, more interdependent happiness that emphasizes the interconnectedness with others. While the Western measure of happiness performed the best in Western countries, the Eastern, interdependent measure of happiness performed more consistently across countries which would make it a better tool for cross-cultural researchers who wish to assess happiness around the world.” 

While in the West, many views of happiness are related to independence, in Eastern countries, happiness can often be related to interdependence. This ideology of interconnectedness is one that is supported in Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, in which harmony and balance is prioritized over the individual’s achievement. 

In undertaking the study, Gardiner and colleagues sought to measure which test of happiness would be most effective across more than 15 thousand people around the world. The study included people in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and South East Asia, as well Americans, Canadians and those from Eastern Asian countries. The two measures used to measure happiness were the Interdependent Happiness scale, developed in Japan and the Subjective Happiness Scale developed in the US. The measure developed in Japan focused more on factors like interpersonal harmony and equality in accomplishment with peers. 

The researchers found the Western measure for happiness was most reliable at measuring happiness in countries in Western Europe. The Western scale wasn’t as effective in Eastern countries like China, Japan or Vietnam. It was also ineffective in African countries.

The Eastern measure was reliable in places like Japan and South Korea, but performed less reliably in Western countries.

“What it means to be happy can vary depending upon our cultural context. And if we are interested in comparing who is happier around the world and why we should first understand the best way to go about measuring happiness,” Gardiner said.

“I think that while most people seem to have an innate interest in happiness, researching cross-cultural variation in happiness can also reveal interesting differences in what cultures do or do not value. For example, how important is the happiness of others for your own happiness? This may not be something many Westerns immediately think of when they describe what makes them happy, but for others it may be harder to imagine being happy if others around them are not.”



About the Author

Elizabeth Pratt

Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald,, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.

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