Motivation and emotion/Book/2015/National and cultural happiness

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National and cultural happiness:
To what extent does membership of a specific nation or culture affect self-reported happiness and life evaluation?

Overview[edit | edit source]

A Happy Tibetan Buddhist Monk

Happiness is often found or can be deduced as the penultimate goal of individuals in most societies. Most members of a society and culture will typically endorse ideas, programs or agendas which provide greater happiness for the largest number of people possible.

Since the introduction of happiness as a key personal goal in the 1950s and 1960s (particularly with the revitalisation of the ‘American Dream’ and the old 'Pursuit of Happiness’), psychology has been increasingly pressed to discover and isolate the components of what makes us happy. While individual happiness and its causes may vary greatly, political leaders and their governments have provided a push for happiness to be seen through a lens specific to socio-political environments, cultures and universally. Thus, research surrounding happiness has been studied comparatively between nations, attempting to discern under which conditions a society experiences a greater level of perceived happiness in its citizens.

History and Criticism of Societal Happiness Research[edit | edit source]

As aforementioned, this specific area of research was initiated particularly in the 1960s, where governments and policy makers became increasingly demanding of psychology to produce an understanding of happiness relative to an individual’s cultural and social environment. This was likely driven by the rise of communism during the 1950s and 1960s, fueled by the American government's desire to learn more about what influence culture and politics could have on positivity and well-being [1].

In 1965, Hadley Cantril, a psychology graduate of Harvard released a book titled ‘The Pattern of Human Concerns’ which was arguably the first majorly recognised and recieved publication on the topic [2]. Cantril, however, had been writing on the topic since as early as 1934, providing research survey data around the topic of social happiness. According to the World Database of Happiness, over 5000 survey studies on the topic of happiness have been conducted across the world in a variety of nations and cultures[3]. This vast collection of data has been used by scientific papers and publications alike, allowing researchers to quickly gather vital points of interest to implement into more stringent experimental designs. Critics do exist over this study approach to happiness, with many viewing the angle of societal happiness as too complex to analyse in any meaningful way. An example of this is many of the countries situated in northern Europe, where the low exposure to sunlight has been linked to depression, while their societal structure and policies have been rated as some of the best in the world in regards to fostering happy citizens. Furthermore, there are clear standing issues of validity such as any meaning of happiness being subject to cultural bias and the shifting nature of emotional perception, rendering any attempts to lock down a universal appreciation of happiness impossible[4]. These criticisms notwithstanding, there still appears to be some value in the research conducted, with data pointing to a few universal relationships being evident between specific societal conditions, living standards and the experience of happiness.

The Methods of Cross-Cultural Comparative Research[edit | edit source]

What is happiness? How can it be measured and therefore compared? Before any consideration or discussion can take place on the topic, we must first provide a foundation by defining what happiness is and the manner by which it is measured for future comparison across countries and cultures. We therefore must first look at leading theories and standing research on the topic in order to gather this principle understanding. Subjective well-being in relation to its prevalence within any given society is the primary concern of cross-cultural studies of happiness[5].

Defining Happiness for Research[edit | edit source]

Figure 1.1: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Psychological studies are first and foremost concerned with the emotional state of happiness. There are examples within philosophy of thinkers defining happiness not only in terms of the emotion, but extending it to include and become synonymous with success and living the moral and ethical ‘good life’[6]. For the context with which we are concerned, we are not considering this relationship, but rather focusing on individuals reporting the emotional states associated with positivity, such as joy and pleasure, as it relates to our external experiences. Arguably the most influential psychological perspective of happiness was that presented by Abraham Harold Maslow, the founder of humanistic psychology. Maslow introduced what is known today as the ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, which was a visual pyramid representing the most fundamental and specific of human needs according to their relationship with happiness and self-fulfillment[7]. While the largest individual section of visual pyramid is physiologically concerned, the central and arguably top section all in some way relate to societal needs. Fulfillment of the upper categories such as Safety, Belonging, Esteem and even self-actualisation are provided in some way by an individual’s participation with a larger society, making Maslow’s pyramid relevant to this topic (see figure 1.1).

Similarly, the works of Martin Seligman within positive psychology support such an idea, that whilst not all, some causes of happiness are universal and society oriented. Seligman suggests that people are happiest when they satisfy Pleasure, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment. While pleasure refers to sheer sensory joys (such as sex or good food), the categories of Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment are often very closely interlinked with an individual’s national or cultural environment. Particularly Meaning (where individuals feel as though they belong to something bigger) can be found in happier individuals[factual?]. Some studies surrounding this aspect of ‘Meaning’ in relation to religion have been done that (while not necessarily being clear cut with their results) do show that happier people tend to be religious, be that a product of the community membership or another component associated with the practice[8]. Regardless, happiness in this context can therefore be defined in terms of the degree to which any individual reports living in a fulfilling, enjoyable and satisfying manner.

The Measurement of Happiness[edit | edit source]

Most measurements of happiness are gathered via questions and scales administered to survey or experiment participants. As such, in early measurements of happiness we see the introduction of ‘inventories’ (collections of tested scales). Examples of these include the 20 Item Life Satisfaction Index[9], The Authentic Happiness Inventory (Seligman et al) or The Oxford Happiness Questionnaire (Argyle & Hills). This method of measurement allows for the somewhat abstract concepts of emotions such as ‘alienation’ to be confronted indirectly and recorded. Another alternative due to the obvious nature of the task to participants is to use simple single direct questions.

Measurement Validity[edit | edit source]

Some criticisms around the research of happiness suggest that questions often fail to accurately measure the intended subject[grammar?] emotion and rather, measure other phenomena. One such alternative explanation for the answers given by participants included normative expressions and personal desires, due to the transparency of the measurement to participants. This may be a true particularly in cultures which view a lack of happiness as a generally negative quality and therefore must be taken into account in a context where respondents would have a motivation to answer in a skewed or outright false manner[10]

Measurement Reliability[edit | edit source]

Typically, questions and inventories which are used to measure happiness are considered to be correctly measuring their desired target emotion. However, they are also considered to measure it rather imprecisely, where respondents have been shown to give different answers to the same question posed twice in a single interview [11]. The variance seen in these responses, while significant for accurate correlational purposes, is never extreme[factual?]. Respondents seldom change from reporting themselves as 'over-joyed' with their life only to switch to unhappiness later, but rather show smaller, incremental fluctuations. This is explained due to the rapidity of mood change in different individuals or doubtfulness with their self-evaluation for a general and ambiguous concept such as happiness. This can also be attributed to the specific environment in which the questions or inventories are administered, eg. Completing a survey in a poorly lift room versus a well-lit room with windows. Whilst this poses an issue for single sample designs, these variations typically average out and the reliability of data can be maintained with extended periods of testing, particularly with the large sample sizes of cross-national testing.

Video Discussion on Validity and Challenges with Measuring Happiness[edit | edit source]

[Challenge of Measuring Happiness] [Provide more detail]

Cross National Happiness Research[edit | edit source]

The application of happiness measurements in the contemporary world has occurred globally and data is available for almost all nations. As such, there has been a significant amount of comparative work done to rank the self-reported happiness of citizens globally. All of these findings are collected for use within the World Database of Happiness in order to form The Happiness of Nations[12], which is a meta-analysis of all reported happiness data globally. More recently however, the World Happiness Report was released in 2015[13], showing a vast meta-analysis of recorded data on the life-evaluations and happiness levels of nations globally. This report included universal correlation predictors of life-evaluation and happiness.

Difference in Happiness Across Nations[edit | edit source]

Figure 2.1: World Happiness Report 2015: Top 30 Nations in Life Satisfaction

The top 30 countries for highest ranking in reported happiness in the World Happiness Report can be seen in figure 2.1. The largest portion of explanation for high happiness in high ranking countries was found to be GDP per capita and social support. Social support was marked as the highest contributing factor. This data shows that the widespread American ethos of the 20th century of hyper-individuality and commercialism via capitalism failed to lift happiness, even in light of per capita income tripling over the past half century in the US. The data suggested that cultural ideals of social justice, sustainability, redistribution and generosity correlate to higher reported happiness in countries past a certain threshold of wealth.

By comparison, the lowest scoring region was Sub-Saharan Africa, with 4.626 on a 10-point scale. This was confirmed by individual national data, showing the lowest countries to be (in ascending order) Togo (2.936), Benin, Central African Republic, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Guinea, Comoros, Syria, Senegal and Madagascar (3.966). The countries on the bottom of the ranking showed lower happiness in regards to health, education and income. However, it was shown that the contribution of freedom to make life choices, healthy life expectancy and generosity to happiness remained proportionally similar. This suggested that fundamental human relationships and community are key factors in national happiness, but cannot replace or prop up the happiness of a community when fundamental physiological needs are not being met[14]. This shows strong support for Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs, where physiological concerns such as personal wealth and safety come first, but are later overtaken by higher order needs of community, meaning, belonging and personal contribution.

Correlation of National Happiness with HDI and GNI[edit | edit source]

The Human Development Index is an open ended tool used to assess the development of country with an emphasis on the capabilities of individuals over general economic growth. The three main dimensions through which this operates are life-expectancy, education and standards of living[15]. The HDI however misses important contributing factors to national happiness, such as inequality, poverty and security. In the findings of The World Happiness Report, a strong positive correlation was found between higher national life evaluations and the HDI. Higher life expectancy at birth was shown to have a 0.70 and expected years of schooling showed a 0.69 correlation coefficient. Not surprisingly, Gross National Income shared a similar correlation of 0.77, suggesting that a nation’s wealth also plays a significant role in maintaining a base level of happiness in it’s[grammar?] citizens.

Some of the more specific correlations in the WHR include Job Satisfaction (0.78), Security Against Crime and Physical Violence (0.23), Participation in Economic and Political Activities (0.16), Freedom (0.56) and Inequality (-0.58).

These findings are significant in that they provide a new dimension to national and cultural happiness studies, in that they provide a view which is people centric, reaching beyond established conception of GDP being the primary and sole explanation for national happiness. It is made clear that HDI has some place in improving and explaining the overall life evaluation of countries which are experiencing decreasing happiness but high GDP, as seen with North America.

Cross Cultural Happiness Research[edit | edit source]

It is imperative that we also take culture into account in order to understand and assess the data gathered by cross-national happiness research. Culture is capable of defining and altering the ways in which we express, perceive and experience emotion, including happiness. Kroeber & Kluckhohn define culture as what is created in conjunction with the conditioning mechanisms which determine the future actions of a particular people. This therefore refers to the historically derived, rituals, ideas, practices, products and groups or institutions within a culture which have some determinant power over the actions and expressions of its members. The most succinct example of the enormous divide in psychology which culture is capable of creating can be seen in the difference between collectivist and individualist societies [16].

Subjective Well-being in Collectivist and Individualist Cultures[edit | edit source]

Significant study has been conducted on the ways in which membership within collectivist and individualist cultures moulds the perception of success, well-being and happiness[17]. The majority of these studies compare the subjective perceptions of American and Chinese cultural distinctions of happiness. While there was found to be universal somatic mannerisms in the expression of happiness (such as smiling), the perception and cognition around happiness shows distinctions cross-culturally. In analysis conducted by Luo Lu & Robin Gilmore[18], it was found that members of Chinese culture perceived happiness to be a state of balance, utilising expressions such as ‘harmony’, ‘balance’ and ‘fit’ when describing the state, words which were not found to be used in any American descriptions of happiness. American expressions of happiness displayed a certain gregarious and dynamic nature, where Chinese expressions were significantly more reserved and subtle. It was conceived that the Chinese approach and perception of happiness showed a long standing connection to Ying-Yang philosophy, which clearly deviated their perception and expression of happiness from American views. This difference was not independent, but was also found among other paradigms, such as spiritual enrichment versus hedonistic satisfaction and the dialectical relationship between happiness and sadness.

Happiness Aversion in Culture[edit | edit source]

Amulets worn to ward off the evil eye.

Even the original assumption of this article can be called into question due to the perception altering effects culture may have on our emotional experiences. It has been shown that not all cultures hold happiness to be the supreme goal of pursuit and some even show an aversion to happiness, holding cultural beliefs that happiness is an omen of misfortune [19]. While examples of these aversions exist in countries across the world, happiness is typically valued more in Western society. In contrast, Eastern cultures typically do not value personal happiness as highly, but rather put an emphasis on ideals of harmony, community, functionalism and conformity. Within this context, it is socially inappropriate to express happiness more often than in Western cultures, particularly in a way which would pull attention to the individual. For example, it was shown that members of Japanese culture were significantly less inclined to delight, appreciate or savour positive emotional experiences than both Americans and Canadians [20][21].

What this suggests is that certain cultures are capable of developing a shyness or hesitance to express and feel happiness due to underlying historical beliefs or practices. These cultures retain some form of aversion to feeling and therefore reporting happiness through culturally specific restraint. An example of this can be found in Iranian culture, where avoiding happiness (particularly external displays) is due to members of the culture not wanting appear selfish, boorish, unintelligent, or boring [22]. This is also shown strongly through religious belief within Iran, where protecting against ‘the evil eye’ and warding off the devil is concurrent with happiness, linking a sense of doom and misfortune with positive events or emotions.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Culture plays a significant role in the perception and expression of happiness. As such, presents a major difficultly in the collection of reliable data when attempting to produce a comparative analysis of global happiness by nationality and culture. The variable and highly complex cognitive stratifications placed around human emotions by culture do appear to somewhat undermine this comparative practice. It is currently difficult to see a way by which all cultural variables in regards to happiness could be accounted in order to provide a valid and meaningful data set on the topic. That being said, while research appears to show that ranking nations or cultures on their happiness may be an overly ambitious goal, it does not mean that comparison cannot be made. While the concept of accurately ranking happiness appears improbable, discussion surrounding happiness and culture does show that the two factors are intimately related, as culture works to meld our intellectual constructs of value and society into our personal emotional experiences. This does mean that culture plays a role in our emotional experience, suggesting that it is possible that an individual belonging to a certain culture may experience greater levels (or at least different) happiness than if they belonged to another culture. While the ranking found in the World Happiness Report is made less valid by the culture-emotion interaction, it does not make the data worthless. The WHR highlights the significance of core (while somewhat rough) principles related to human happiness. This also suggests that nationality can be a predictor of happiness within a given individual up to an extent, based on the average expected quality of life with specific citizenship. It also highlights the importance of community being built closely into government, which takes a central role in happiness after physiological concerns are met. This data also importantly supports prominent theoretical perspectives on happiness, where individuals have a progressive need priority to achieving satisfaction and ultimately happiness from their lives[vague].

See also[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Hochschild, J. L. (1996). Facing up to the American dream: Race, class, and the soul of the nation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  2. Cantril, H. (1965). The pattern of human concern. New Brunswick, USA., Rutgers University Press.
  3. Veenhoven, R, (2012a). World database of happiness: Continuous register of scientific research on subjective appreciation of life. Erasmus University Rotterdam, Netherlands.
  4. Gallup, G. H. (1976). Human Needs and Satisfactions: A Global Survey. Public Opinion Quarterly, 40: 459–467.
  5. Christopher, J. C. (1999). Situating psychological well-being: Exploring the cultural roots of its theory and research. Journal of Counseling and Development, 77, 141–152.
  6. King, A. Y., & Napa, C. K., (1998). What makes a good life?. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, pp. 156–165.
  7. Maslow, A.H. (1943). "Psychological Review 50 (4) 370–96 - A theory of human motivation".
  8. Okulicz-Kozaryn, A. (2010). Religiosity and life satisfaction across nations. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 13, 155-169.
  9. Neugarten, B. L., Havinghurst, R. J., & Tobin, S. S. (1961). The Measurement of Life Satisfaction. Journal of Gerontology, 16: 134–143
  10. Lucas, R. E., Diener, E., & Suh, E. M. (1996). Discriminant Validity of Well-Being Measures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 616–628.
  11. Veenhoven, R. (2012b). Happiness in Nations. World database of happiness. Erasmus University Rotterdam, Netherlands.
  12. Veenhoven, R. (2012c). Happiness in Nations. World database of happiness. Erasmus University Rotterdam, Netherlands.
  13. Helliwell, John F., Richard Layard, and Jeffrey Sachs, eds. 2015. World Happiness Report 2015. New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
  14. Ball, R. E. & Chernova, K. (2008). Absolute Income, Relative Income, and Happiness. Social Indicators Research, 88: 497–529.
  15.,. 'Human Development Index (HDI) | Human Development Reports'. N.p., 2015. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
  16. Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work Related Values. Vol. 5, Sage Publications, Incorporated.
  17. Ratzlaff, C., Matsumoto, D., Kouznetsova, N., Raroque J., & Ray R., (2000). Individual psychological culture and subjective well-being. E. Diener & E.M. Sul (eds), Culture and Subjective Well-being (The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA), pp. 37–60.
  18. Lu, L. & Gilmore, R., (2004). Culture and Conceptions of Happiness:Individual Oriented and Social Oriented SWB. Journal of Happiness Studies 5: 269–291
  19. Tsai, J. L., Knutson, B., & Fung, H. H. (2006). Cultural variation in affect valuation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 288–307.
  20. Safdar, S., Friedlmeier, W., Matsumoto, D., Yoo, S. H., Kwantes, C. T., Kakai, H., et al. (2009). Variations of emotional display rules within and across cultures: A comparison between Canada, USA, and Japan. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, 41(1), 1–10
  21. Miyamoto, Y., & Ma, X. (2011). Dampening or savoring positive emotions: A dialectical cultural script guides emotion regulation. Emotion, 11(6), 1346.
  22. Good, M. J., & Good, B. J. (1988). Ritual, the state, and the transformation of emotional discourse in Iranian society. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, 12(1), 43–63.

External links[edit | edit source]