How Does Culture Affect Our Happiness?

Balloon with a happy face on it to represent the title "How Does Culture Affect Our Happiness?"

Happiness is like gravity. We know it is there, experience its presence, and see it as essential to our existence on this planet. Similar to gravity, happiness keeps us grounded – firmly rooted among our families and communities. Although the concept is universal, the cultural systems in which we live affect how we interpret and define happiness. Which leads us to wonder, how does culture affect our happiness?

What is the Relationship Between Culture and Happiness?

Endless books and even the World Happiness Report discuss the never-ending quest for individuals and societies to attain happiness. However, knowing where the happiest people live or attaching it to the circumstances, virtues, or items that bring us joy puts an undue focus on the desired outcome without examining why we experience happiness in the first place. 

While the craving for happiness is universal, our experiences, perceptions, and expectations of it result from cultural conditioning. Therefore, if you wish to experience more joy, it can be helpful to look at your personal definition of happiness and how you arrived at that definition. 

Allow me to show you what I mean.

Cultural Beliefs About Happiness

We pick up signals from the cultural and social systems around us about the external factors that should make us happy and, subsequently, the non-verbal cues that demonstrate happiness. Then, we incorporate these signals into our intersectional lens – the unique worldview or belief system each of us forms due to the influences and experiences in our lives. We internalize these cultural beliefs about happiness and respond accordingly within the system – subconsciously allowing them to influence our choices or judgments.

How We Express Happiness

People celebrating to illustrate a raucous expression of happiness.

Since happiness operates along a continuum, we recognize the experience of joy in its extremes, typically during raucous celebrations. However, this is a very narrow view of how happiness should look. We can also find pleasure in quieter settings, through human connection, social harmony, and contemplation. Yet, we rarely tie the experience of calm and relaxation to happiness.

Many cultures place a heavy emphasis on outward signs of happiness. The belief is that if you are happy, then all is well. Such a belief implies that for someone to have a good life, one’s life must constantly operate in a state of happiness. However, recent research has demonstrated that the answer to a good life is far more nuanced. It suggests that happiness and life satisfaction can consist of both positive and negative experiences and that it is complexity and richness that creates a fulfilling, and therefore, good life. 

Symbols of Happiness

A common myth is that happiness is a goal to be achieved vs. a lifelong pursuit. As a result, many strive for it, convincing themselves that things, personal achievements, or over-the-top experiences symbolize happiness. Or, sometimes we think that we can gain happiness through other people, via our friendships, marriages, or children. However, without clarifying our definition of what it means to be individually happy, we may find ourselves in quite the opposite situation.

Exploring Happiness in Different Cultures

Happiness manifests itself differently across different cultures. And the way people demonstrate their happiness to themselves and others is often a reflection of their society’s values. Therefore, we see significant differences when comparing the conception of happiness among individualistic societies vs. collectivist societies. 

For instance, positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky conducted a study on how different cultures define happiness. Lyubomirsky invited participants in Russia and the United States to fill out concept maps around the definition of happiness. She found that the Americans offered concrete definitions in the form of things and experiences that are attainable such as money, success, family, and fun. In contrast, the Russian participants responded with more conceptual factors like peace, spirituality, beauty, and mutual understanding. 

The word "happiness" written in the sand at a beach.

I recently returned from a trip to Finland, where we visited several Finnish education institutions, from the ministry of education to universities and day-care centers. While I was there, our Finnish hosts spoke of the embedded sense of trust inherent within their institutions, communities, culture, and systems. And, I observed a sense of quiet contentment that I’ve also witnessed in a handful of other cultures where the government covers most basic services. 

I realized that while one might define this as happiness, it’s a constellation of factors that contribute to overall well-being, such as security, trust, belonging, and contentment. Therefore, it is crucial to understand that all of these things and more contribute to our levels of happiness. 

So, How Does Culture Affect Our Happiness and What Can We Do About it?

Ultimately, the pursuit of happiness is a personal experience shaped by the intersectional lens through which we view ourselves and our circumstances compared to the world around us. I often see tension with my clients when they find themselves in a situation where they feel pressure to experience happiness (i.e., I received a promotion! I should be happy, but I’m more miserable than ever). 

To overcome these situations and encourage more positive emotions, we explore how their cultural identity and subsequent internal narratives may be contributing to their view of these feelings. If you would like to explore such an experience for yourself, I would encourage you to consider the following questions:

  1. How would you define happiness? 
  2. What are the key cultural contributors to this definition? Examples can include family, friends, institutions, media, etc. 
  3. What are the conditions that make us happy? 
  4. How do we know when we are happy? 
  5. What are the key factors that make you acknowledge the absence of happiness?
  6. How do we demonstrate to others that we are happy?

By asking ourselves these questions and genuinely internalizing the answers, we can discover new words for happiness and ways to recognize the experience within ourselves.

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About the Author

Picture of Victoria Shiroma Wilson, Ed.D., P.C.C.

Victoria Shiroma Wilson, Ed.D., P.C.C.

Victoria Shiroma Wilson, Ed.D., P.C.C., is the founder of Exceptional Futures, a provider of frameworks that help people tap into the power of their cultural identities to answer some of life’s biggest questions. Victoria is on the teaching faculty at Duke University and earned her doctoral degree in Global Leadership from the University of Southern California, a master’s degree in Psychology from Santa Clara University, and a master’s degree in Asian Studies from the University of Pennsylvania.

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