By: Stephen Chartrand- Specialty News Editor
In the Springer’s Journal of Happiness Studies, a recent study published by Moshen Joshanloo and Dan Weijers of Victoria University of Wellington, researchers have discovered that happiness and how we think about it not only varies according to culture but that some cultures are averse to happiness in the first place.
Claiming their study to be the first of its kind, the authors examined perceptions of happiness in a number of different cultures, looking specifically at happiness aversion; or, cultures and individuals in which happiness is not the supreme value.
In most psychology circles, scientists tend to think that our well-being as individuals, our satisfaction, or overall happiness, can be studied by looking at subjective well-being. Our “subjective well-being,” the authors write, “is believed to consist of life satisfaction, the presence of positive affect, and the absence of negative affect.” In other words, happiness is what we individually make it out to be.
Historically, happiness has occupied a central role throughout our cultural history. Writing 2,300 years ago, Aristotle believed that “happiness [was] the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” From the ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophers down through the Christian era, western culture has more or less accepted happiness as its supreme value.
This subjective interpretation of happiness, the authors argue, began with the Enlightenment when the “ideas of liberal modernity, hedonism, and romantic individualism” started to overtake Greek and Christian concepts of happiness.
What we live with now, according to Mr. Joshanloo and Mr. Weijers, is the belief “in the sovereignty of individuals over their personal happiness, and the importance of positive mood and affect balance as ingredients of a good life.”
What brought the authors to study happiness aversion, however, is that in psychology studies and other areas of western thought, it is almost completely taken for granted that people consider happiness to be an important if not the most important value in their lives – that we tend to judge the overall well-being of someone by how happy or satisfied they feel about their work or sex lives. We also take it for granted, the authors note, that “happiness is best understood as a personal concept, such that an individual’s happiness is not directly constituted by the success, health, or psychological well-being of others.”
In other words, we tend to think about happiness in terms of how we feel about ourselves and our unique experiences. What the authors learned from their study, however, is that there are many societies and individuals who not only do not share this view but are averse to happiness as an ideal.
While aversion to happiness exists in western culture too, it is much more pronounced in non-western culture. Many of these happiness averse individuals and cultures, the authors found, “seem to be exaggerations, often spurred by superstition or timeless advice on how to enjoy a pleasant or prosperous life.”
For example, ideas of community, social harmony, and conformity often are seen as contrary to the idea of happiness as we think about it in the west. In many of the cultures throughout east and southeast Asia, like Japan, for instance, people are much more likely to regard public displays of happiness as “inappropriate.”
Their findings, while they perhaps confirm what we already know, that definitions of happiness are different for different peoples and different cultures, has shifted the argument from a purely philosophical one to an empirically-based science of measuring and comparing happiness and happiness aversion.