Before talking about happiness in different cultures let Aristotle remind us that, “Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”
I think we can all agree that his observation was bang on!
Essentially, everything we do in our lives is to make ourselves happy.
Nobody wants to go out of their way to feel miserable!
Nobody strives to do things to make themselves feel sad.
It’s all about happiness, as far as we humans are concerned.
In fact, the release of feel-good hormones like dopamine and serotonin by the brain when we experience something pleasant tells us that we might be hardwired to prefer happiness.
I know this doesn’t need to be stated explicitly, but it sure tells you how we function as humans.
Also, if you think about it, happiness happens to be one of the most universal emotions in the world. Virtually everyone knows what it feels like to be happy, even if that happiness is short-lived.
Can Culture Affect Your Idea of Happiness?
Have you ever wondered whether a person’s happiness or the very idea of it is affected by their culture?
I mean, we have all heard about the phenomenon of culture shock.
It happens when you experience a new culture and feel anxious, confused, or uncertain as a result.
This typically happens when something that is completely unacceptable to you is considered completely normal in a different culture.
For example, it is okay to call elders by their first names in western countries but that is considered highly offensive in eastern cultures.
So, things like this make you think about whether there are fundamental differences in how different cultures perceive happiness.
I mean, if your culture can dictate how you greet other people, can it not dictate what you think of happiness? As it turns out, it can!
How Culture Can Influence Happiness
There is no doubt that your culture serves as one of the biggest influencers in your life.
Right from your childhood, the culture you are exposed to shapes your mindset, beliefs, values, attitude, and so on.
If you are born in a culture where spirituality is considered very important, you will most likely grow up to be a very spiritual person.
Similarly, the very idea of happiness and what it means to you can be defined by the culture you come from.
And what’s amazing is that you won’t even realize that you are being programmed a certain way. It’s just a natural part of growing up in a particular atmosphere, around a particular type of people and being exposed to a certain education system.
Your subconscious mind forms beliefs and values based on what you keep hearing from adults from a very young age.
For example, if you kept hearing something like, “Money doesn’t grow on trees,” from an early age, you will more likely develop an attitude that money is hard to come by.
It’s these subtle, but real everyday interactions and experiences that shape your mind in a particular way.
Again, going back to happiness, we can clearly see a difference between how western countries perceive it versus how eastern cultures do.
- In western cultures, people generally want to feel lively emotions like cheerfulness and excitement. They often equate these emotions with happiness.
- On the other hand, in many eastern cultures, people want to feel calmer emotions like peace and serenity, as they see these emotions being synonymous with happiness.
Why Do Different Cultures See Happiness Differently?
I think it’s quite hard to determine why exactly a particular culture equates certain things and emotions with happiness.
It might have a lot to do with their history and collective experiences over the past centuries.
For example, if a particular culture has seen a lot of war and conflict for a really long time, it is easy to see why peace would be their definition of happiness!
So, the best you can do now is study the various cultures in the world and learn what happiness means to them.
This can open up your perception and make you realize that even something as basic as happiness can become a multi-dimensional thing when it comes to us humans.
What Happiness Means For Different Cultures
Now that we have taken an overall look at this subject, it is time to get down to details.
In my opinion, this is the most interesting part as it gives you a direct understanding of what happiness means for different cultures.
It also tells you what the differences in perception are based on.
How Different Cultures Conceptualize Happiness
When it comes to Americans, most of them think about happiness as a human right.
They also equate it with positive experiences (as you would expect), personal freedom, and personal achievements.
And as mentioned above, high-intensity emotions like cheerfulness, excitement, elation, delightedness, etc. are often associated with the state of happiness.
The Japanese, on the other hand, link happiness with good luck, moderation, and social harmony.
In some countries like Russia, Germany, France, and Norway, happiness is often associated with the concept of luck. In fact, this trend was common even in the United States till the 1800s. You would also be surprised to know that the “hap” in happiness stands for luck.
Interestingly, people who believe luck plays an important role in happiness don’t see any point in pursuing it as a goal.
They believe that it will automatically happen when you get lucky. Of course, this differs from the beliefs of the current western cultures where they see happiness as a human right that should be actively pursued.
How Local Beliefs And Traditions Influence Happiness
The Japanese are deeply aware of the transient nature of happiness.
In fact, they are averse to the very idea of pursuing happiness, which might seem very weird to people in western nations.
In their culture, it is believed that misfortune will follow them if they try to achieve happiness. This belief stems from the idea that opposites travel together.
So, you can’t have happiness without sadness.
This belief is also inherent among people in Taiwan, China, and India.
In India, there is a popular saying among some cultures, “If you laugh a lot today, you will cry a lot tomorrow.”
In fact, there have been studies where this belief has been distinctively shown.
In one of these studies, it was observed that Japanese and European American students who performed well in their exams were quite happy on the day of the exam. However, the next day, the European American students were still happy but the Japanese students were much less happy because of their beliefs. Things like these can be shocking if you don’t belong to the same culture.
There is another example that showcases this.
In China, preparing for your own funeral is considered a happy thing. People often pay detailed attention to what clothes they will be buried in. They even go as far as choosing matching shoes and accessories!
Also, they plan with enthusiasm the type of food that will be served at the funeral. Although this is often seen as a cause for celebration in China, in western countries, it might be looked at as a weird or even dark concept that couldn’t be further from happiness!
How Language Influences Happiness
Language is another point of difference when people from different cultures define happiness.
For example, in Chinese, there are several different terms for happiness, each of which has a slightly different meaning.
These words can mean “good mood,” “having a good life,” “having meaning in life,” or “having a good death.” So, it’s clear that the word “happiness” doesn’t carry the same meaning for all cultures.
This is especially seen in eastern versus western cultures.
Another example of this could be how Russians define the word happiness in their language.
They define it using words like peace, beauty, mutual understanding, and spirituality. This was in stark contrast to people from the United States who provided more definite definitions of happiness such as success, fun, family, and money.
This is also reflected in how people from Hong Kong define happiness. They usually use terms such as calm, serenity, relaxation, etc.
How Relationships Influence The Idea of Happiness
Going beyond language, we all know that our relationships are an important part of life.
And in some cultures, these relationships end up influencing one’s happiness to a much greater degree than in other cultures.
One example of this can be taken from Asian students. It is often seen that Asian children do not feel like they are fulfilling their parents’ expectations of them to their fullest capabilities.
And this is often cited as a reason for their lack of happiness. When these children believe that they are fulfilling those expectations, they report higher levels of happiness. This might not always be the case in western cultures (especially when it comes to teens and adults).
Another example of this can be seen in the way Asian students feel when they experience success.
They obviously feel happy to have achieved something, but at the same time, they are also concerned about how their success might make other students feel. They fear that their achievements might trouble their peers. So, they end up experiencing mixed emotions.
How Abstract Concepts Influence Happiness
Finally, there are other things in life that go beyond our worldly pursuits.
I am, of course, referring to things like religion, spirituality, and philosophical beliefs.
These factors have different impacts on the happiness of people from different cultures.
For instance, in countries like India, Bhutan, Nepal, and other Asian countries, a person’s happiness deeply depends on their connection with a higher consciousness.
This higher consciousness could be in the form of a god, the universe, or anything else.
But when people feel like they are connected to a higher energy of some kind, they are happier in their lives. They feel like their lives have more meaning and are leading to something more important.
So, as you can see from the above examples, happiness can mean very different things for people belonging to different cultures. In some cases, these differences can even be shocking. But such is the reality of human diversity. The more you learn, the more you understand that we are a multi-dimensional and highly sophisticated race of people. And there is certainly beauty in that.