The latest edition of the journal Emotion has a fascinating study comparing common concepts of happiness and unhappiness between Americans and Japanese people. While we tend to think that ‘happiness’ is a universal concept, it turns out that we think of it in quite culturally specific ways.
Happiness and unhappiness in east and west: Themes and variations.
Emotion. 2009 Aug;9(4):441-56.
Uchida Y, Kitayama S.
Cultural folk models of happiness and unhappiness are likely to have important bearings on social cognition and social behavior. At present, however, little is known about the nature of these models. Here, the authors systematically analyzed American and Japanese participants’ spontaneously produced descriptions of the two emotions and observed, as predicted, that whereas Americans associated positive hedonic experience of happiness with personal achievement, Japanese associated it with social harmony.
Furthermore, Japanese were more likely than Americans to mention both social disruption and transcendental reappraisal as features of happiness. As also predicted, unlike happiness, descriptions of unhappiness included various culture-specific coping actions: Whereas Americans focused on externalizing behavior (e.g., anger and aggression), Japanese highlighted transcendental reappraisal and self-improvement. Implications for research on culture and emotion are discussed.
Link to PubMed entry for the study.