A new research paper by Mohsen Joshanloo and Dan Weijers from Victoria University of Wellington, argues that the desire for personal happiness, though knitted into the fabric of American history and culture, is held in less esteem by other cultures. There are many parts of the world that are more suspicious of personal happiness, defined in the paper as experiencing pleasure, positive emotion, or success, and now empirical research is catching up with these cultural beliefs.
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What explains these major cultural differences? Part of the answer lies in the fundamental values that different cultures emphasize. In Eastern cultures, the emphasis is on attainment of social harmony, where community and belonging are held in high regard. In Western cultures, the emphasis is on attainment of happiness, where the individualistic self tends to be celebrated.
I'm reminded of the line by the Robert Duvall character in the movie "Tender Mercies." He says something like, "I've never trusted happiness; it doesn't last." Maybe I've got a little Easternness mixed in with my Western sensibilities, because I don't see the search for happiness as a linear journey the way most Americans seem to -- you strive to be a little happier, or a little closer to happiness, every day. I see happiness as a "comes and goes" kind of thing. So you enjoy it when it's here and don't get too worked up about it when it's not here.
Maybe "happiness" is the wrong word. How about "fulfillment"? Even those group-think Easterners are fulfilled when they do what they perceive as the right thing by helping promote social harmony, right? I feel fulfilled for more selfish reasons, like when I write an editorial I'm really pleased with or an unexpectredly warm and sunny day greets me on the way to the office. Maybe "contentment" is the best word of all. Most of the time I don't think we feel poised between ecstasy and misery, wondering which way we'll turn. We're just generally OK with the world and where we are in it.