The cultural shaping of happiness

#037 Spiritual revolution (Mathias Sager, water mixable oil colour on canvas board, 46.7×38.1×0.4 cm (18.4″x15″x0.16″))

There exist different underlying motivations on how to pursue happiness in different cultures. As I am living in Japan as a Westerner, I was interested to study some culturally shaped concepts of happiness and also linked them to the correlation between wealth and happiness.

Conception of happiness

As Luo (2004) points out, the conception of happiness can vary across cultures; e.g., Eastern traditions adapt a more ambivalent view towards happiness as with it also comes unhappiness. It is that dialectic that Asian cultures strive to balance, often also by spiritual means. Western cultures put more emphasis on the importance of happiness as an ultimate goal of life and therefore try to avoid unhappiness as a primary strategy. A closer social integration compared do Western cultures is one reason for why Eastern cultures tend to less endorse the pursuit of individualistic values such as personal well-being (Joshanloo, 2014). Tsai and Park (2014) are differentiating between ideal affect and actual affect and elaborate on what ‘ideal’ means by stating that “culture shapes what feelings people view as desirable, moral, and right” (p. 352). A study found that European Canadians valued high-arousal positive (HAP) states more than for example Hong Kong Chinese (Tsai and Park, 2014). However, both in Western and non-Western cultures, individuals recognize possible damaging effects of “the direct pursuit of individualistic, immediate, hedonistic, and material concepts of happiness” (p. 728).

Achievement of happiness

The main difference in how happiness is achieved in a collectivist setting lies in the fulfillment of role obligations and societal harmony. In contrast, Western cultural traditions do more emphasize mastering the environment rather than to submerge with it (Luo, 2004). Oishi (2008) summarize the difference between European Americans and Asians as follows: “European Americans felt happier when their interaction partner perceived their personal self accurately, whereas Asian Americans felt happier when their interaction partner perceived their collective self accurately” (p. 307). The view of one’s self that is culturally shaped is much influencing how happiness is perceived. From a collectivist perspective, prosperity too is more attribute to the state than to an individual.


Although a smile might be recognized as an expression of happiness everywhere, and although individual personality traits are important too, cultural traditions and practices are determining much an individual’s conception and perception of well-being. Today, in many Eastern countries and especially in urban areas, there may be progressing cultural fusions going on. Lu et al. (2001) do confirm the co-existence of contrasting (e.g., collectivist and individualist) values in individuals and it seems to be possible to benefit from a ‘best of all’ approach. Diverse cultures require to more thoroughly analyzing the conceptions of happiness, and a better understanding of diverse cultures may provide valuable insight for policy making too.



Joshanloo, M., & Weijers, D. (2014). Aversion to Happiness Across Cultures: A Review of Where and Why People are Averse to Happiness. Journal Of Happiness Studies, 15(3), 717-735. doi:10.1007/s10902-013-9489-

Lu, L. )., Kao, S. )., Weng, T. )., Hu, C. )., Chern, J. )., Huang, S. )., & … Shih, J. (2001). Two ways to achieve happiness: When the East meets the West. Personality And Individual Differences, 30(7), 1161-1174. doi:10.1016/S0191-8869(00)00100-8

Luo, L. (2004). Culture and conceptions of happiness: individual oriented and social oriented swb. Journal Of Happiness Studies, 5(3), 269-291.

Oishi, S., Koo, M., Akimoto, S., Oishi, S., Koo, M., & Akimoto, S. (2008). Culture, interpersonal perceptions, and happiness in social interactions. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(3), 307-320. doi:10.1177/0146167207311198

Tsai, J., & Park, B. (2014). The Cultural Shaping of Happiness: The Role of Ideal Affect. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199926725.003.0019