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Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien


2012, ISSN: 1179-8602



International Journal of Wellbeing 2 (4)

Special Issue: Happiness: Does Culture Matter?

In recent years, with the emergence of ‘happiness studies’, an increasing number of investigations of subjective wellbeing, satisfaction and quality of life have been published across disciplines. Such studies frequently include cross-cultural comparisons designed to examine, for example, whether Americans are happier than Europeans, or whether marriage contributes to happiness in a similar way in Sweden and Germany. However, whether such cross-cultural comparisons are feasible and under what circumstances remain hotly debated questions. While most researchers in psychology, sociology, political science and economy take it for granted that cross-cultural comparisons are feasible and meaningful, cultural anthropologists are divided on this issue.

In order to probe and perhaps bridge this disciplinary gap and find common ground, we brought together experts in happiness research from various disciplines and different cultural contexts. In November 2011, we held a two-day workshop at the Japanese-German Center Berlin (JDZB) , to make initial steps towards a multi-disciplinary approach combining quantitative and qualitative perspectives. The gist of it is summarized in this special issue, in which we aim to shed light on the complex interrelations of wellbeing and cultural context.

Open access: International Journal of Wellbeing 2 (4)


Veenhoven, Ruut
Cross-national differences in happiness: Cultural measurement bias or effect of culture?

The number of cross-national research studies on happiness is soaring, but doubts about the comparability of happiness between countries remain. One source of doubt is the possibility of cultural measurement bias. Another source of doubt is in the theory that happiness is culturally relative. These qualms were checked using the available data on differences in average happiness across nations. It appears that happiness can be compared across nations and used as an indicator of how well people thrive in a society.

Keywords: happiness, life-satisfaction, cross-cultural, cultural measurement bias

pp. 333-353

Uchida, Yukiko; Ogihara, Yuji
Personal or Interpersonal Construal of Happiness: A Cultural Psychological Perspective

Cultural psychological research reveals considerable variation in how people construe happiness and experience subjective wellbeing. This paper identified substantial cultural differences in (1) meanings of happiness, (2) predictors of happiness, and (3) how social changes such as globalization are related to happiness. In European-American cultural contexts, happiness is construed as including experience of a highly desirable and positive emotional state defined in terms of a high arousal state such as excitement and a sense of personal achievement. Moreover, individual happiness is best predicted by personal goal attainment and high self-esteem or self-efficacy. In contrast, in East Asian cultural contexts (i.e., those found in Japan), happiness is construed as including experience of both positive and negative emotional state. Happiness is defined in terms of experiencing a low arousal state such as calmness and interpersonal connectedness and harmony. Furthermore, individual happiness is best predicted by relationship harmony and emotional support from others. While people maintain traditional cultural norms, some societies and organizations are under pressure from globalization and this might affect happiness. We examined how cultural change affects wellbeing, especially focusing on current Japanese contexts where individuals have experienced an increasing shift toward individualism and have experienced a large national disaster. Cultural psychological perspectives regarding happiness provide important contributions to psychological science and society at large.

Keywords: cultural construal of happiness, culture, happiness, achievement orientation, relationship orientation, individualism

pp. 354-369

スザンネ・クリーン; カローラ・ホメリヒ
Happiness: Does Culture Matter?
pp. 292-298

Mathews, Gordon
Happiness, Culture, and Context

The first part of this paper discusses why statistical comparisons of happiness and wellbeing are insufficient. It considers criticisms of these statistical comparisons, and discusses how, while they are useful for some purposes, they do not enable fully adequate cross-cultural comparison. The paper then discusses the problem of surveys both in terms of language, given the subtly different terms in different languages for happiness, and in terms of culture, arguing that difference in cultures can cause the findings of surveys to be less than transparent. It then turns to a consideration of culture itself, which has become increasingly problematic in anthropology in recent decades. ‘Culture’ is a term that has been shifting in its meanings. Culture no longer refers simply to ‘the way of life of a people,’ but also to the array of choices individuals make from ‘the global cultural supermarket’; culture in both these senses needs to be analyzed in terms of how it develops in the individual, as recent anthropological theories have been exploring. This new-found complexity of culture does not mean that researchers on subjective wellbeing should abandon culture as a variable; rather, they should augment statistical surveys of wellbeing, which are based on the older, conventional conception of culture, with ethnographic interviewing conducted by researchers who understand the language and culture in a given society. Only on this basis can the cross-cultural study of wellbeing reach its full potential, the paper argues, a potential uniting of different academic disciplines in a common endeavor, that of fully understanding what happiness means and how it can best be attained in the world.

Keywords: happiness, wellbeing, well-being, statistical surveys, ethnographic research, culture, the cultural supermarket

pp. 299-312

Thin, Neil
Counting and recounting happiness and culture: On happiness surveys and prudential ethnobiography

The analysis of numerical data from happiness surveys has caught the attention of governments, corporations, and public media. It is questionable, however, whether the humanistic and empathetic aspirations of happiness scholarship can be well served by numerical reductionism unless this is more effectively complemented by ethnobiographical approaches which explore how self-ratings emerge from cultural contexts and self-narratives. Happiness is imagined, generated, and expressed both through quantification and through stories. In scholarship, as in everyday life, we count and recount our blessings. This somewhat neglected distinction between numerical and narrative representations of happiness applies to conceptual, experiential, and methodological issues. It may help us to understand the social construction of happiness in cultural contexts, in conjunction with other distinctions such as those between affective and cognitive appraisals, and between hedonic and eudaimonic versions of the good life. There are potential synergies between psychometric and ethnobiographical approaches which could help us to recover some of the core humanistic values of the ‘happiness lens’, namely: empathy (respect for subjectivity); positivity (attention to goodness); holism; a lifespan perspective; and consequentialist transparency (making progressive intentions and causal theories explicit). Anthropology has good potential to help strengthen these values, particularly by using ethnobiography to help us understand what numerical representations of happiness mean.

Keywords: happiness, culture, anthropology, self-reports, quantification, biography, self, meaning, suffering

pp. 313-332