Defining Happiness In A World Of Culture

To smile, or not to smile? That is the question.   

What does it mean to be happy? Is it quantifiable? Is it something that can be measured? Most would agree that it’s a state of mind, absolutely reliant on our psychology. It’s quite fitting then, that happiness should be observed differently across cultures.

Findings suggest that there are two essential ways of measuring happiness: through Western and Eastern standards. While income and wealth are paramount to obtaining happiness in the West, they hold less of a precedence in the East.

Photo by Stan B on Unsplash

Generally speaking though, there are four main determinants of happiness. These include: social support, a healthy lifestyle, independence, and an environment of trust. Each of these have been confirmed to improve well-being. That being said, cultural values greatly influence perceptions of happiness and joy.

The relationship between culture and happiness is, by all means, complex. William Tov, associate professor of psychology at Singapore Management University, finds this dilemma to be rooted in the idea that everyone defines happiness differently.

“You can’t have one definition of the term,” he says. “It’s important to understand that the things we think should make people happy may not be the same, or may not operate in exactly the same way.”

This idea is evidenced by divergent perceptions of happiness being reliant on a person’s extraversion, enthusiasm, general optimism, or excitement. This tends toward the Western views, but is not necessarily a “universal” truth. In most other places, happiness appears much less contingent on “overt optimism” or excessive feelings of enthusiasm. Though this kind of thinking is generally considered to be correct in America, recent research has shown mechanisms of positive thinking may only improve our health because we are conditioned to believe so. It’s sort of like a placebo on our emotions. The effects are real, but only because we allow them to be.

UNSPLASH ben o’bro

Generally speaking, Eastern views appraise meaning or the value of finding meaning in life. The concept of being “in a good mood” does not solely determine a person’s wellbeing or general happiness. This is especially evident in China, where people generally strive for a “good life” or intrinsic value. Thus, showing tangible markers of happiness is not only less pervasive, but considerably less important. A recent study performed by Paula Niedenthal, psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, indicated that countries with higher immigration rates (spanning the last 500 years) are more likely to interpret smiling as a friendly gesture, while those with lower rates perceive their being more closely tied to social order. In these places, smiling is a means of fronting “negative” emotions around people of status, wealth or ascendancy.

Our emotions – and the way choose we show them – are clearly subjective. In fact, a recent meta-analysis among 30 nations revealed that 80% maintain the view that luck and fortune play – at least partially – into happiness. These perceptions were actually quite common in ancient China and Greece, where happiness was considered fatalistic and destined for a fortunate few. Other prevalent interpretations, such as dialectalism, maintain the idea that good things follow from bad, and vice versa. Though these concepts remain uncertain, the value of their weight is – at least partly – based in cultural, social and historical conditions, and therefore cannot be absolute.

Photo by Jaddy Liu on Unsplash

While happiness exists transnationally, ongoing perceptions and the way it conveys itself, are considered largely variant. It’s not this one-dimensional, unilinear thing. It’s unpredictable, disordered. Despite our better attempts, it’s immeasurable.

Samantha Bertolino

Content Editor Associate

Samantha is a Connecticut native and an avid lover of reading, writing and poetry. She spent two months in Florence, where she studied business and the architecture of old chapels, in addition to developing a taste for espresso and tea.)

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