Happiness is not universal

Photo by Flickr user kalandrakas. Click for sourceThe 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.

5 thoughts on “Happiness is not universal”

  1. With the fact that happiness can be dependant on the social culture the question:
    Does the cultural differences in defining Happiness affect the success rate-efficacy of antidepressant medication? (in different countries)

  2. This brings up an interesting question. Is the West’s idea of happiness, individual success, antagonistic to the human’s evolutionary psychology? Humans are HIGHLY social, and, therefor, social success should be top priority for such a social animal, but when individual success is the measure for which we are happy, and for an individual to succeed they must take from another (limited resource model), does it create antagonistic feelings within the human psyche?
    Could this be a possible explanation of the West’s, especially America, higher incidence of depression, anger and criminal behavior. If our, the West’s, collective psychology, cultural cognition (individualism) was more aligned with our evolutionary psychology (socialism), like the East’s, would we be more aligned and have less internal conflict with ourselves?

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