Happiness Isn’t A Good Thing In All Cultures

Summer vacation
“I shall take the heart . . . for brains do not make one happy, and happiness is the best thing in the world.” —The Tinman, “The Wizard of Oz”

In A Nutshell

Being happy isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, and a recent study has shown that there are a ton of different thoughts on happiness. Far from being a human drive and desire, it’s a state that’s more of a culturally created one. While many Westerners strive for happiness as their end goal, many others have a severe aversion to happiness. There’s a wide range of reasons for that, from fear that the universe will soon balance extreme happiness with extreme sadness to the idea that being incredibly happy makes you a morally questionable person.

The Whole Bushel

Ask people what they really, really want in life, and chances might seem good that most of them will say that they just want to be happy. It turns out, though, that it’s not as clear-cut as that; it’s not a basic human drive to be happy more often than to be sad. New studies suggest that it’s not a species-wide desire, but instead, it’s a product of our cultures.

It’s such an extreme thing that in some places, happiness is outright avoided, and for good reason.

We’re most familiar with happiness being a good thing, and that’s the standard in Western culture. When people look and act happy, everything’s all right. We do psychological studies on those that are chronically unhappy, and we act like there’s something wrong with them.

In cultures outside of America and Europe, though, there’s a very different take on the importance of happiness. If you’re personally happy, that means you’re likely more focused on your own well-being and state of mind—and we all know how often personal happiness and the greater good are at odds with each other. People in East Asia often find displays of happiness incredibly improper, and in Japan, being happy just isn’t as big of a deal.

A study done by researchers from the Victoria University of Wellington has taken a look at just how differently we tend to view happiness and how important is it to most people. The results were surprisingly contradictory to our usual opinion that the pursuit of happiness is the be-all, end-all for most people.

Defining happiness as the satisfaction that comes with the state of affairs and a lack of negative emotions, researchers looked not just at how happy people are, but how people view other happy people. Their results suggested a lot of those studied were downright averse to the whole idea.

They found that there are different types of happiness. The happy that you feel when you get a raise at work, for instance, is different than the happy you feel when you come home and you’re greeted by your faithful dog, who’s been clearly waiting to see you all day. Typically, one of those was shown to elicit the idea of happiness as an incredibly self-centered, individualistic emotion, and that’s where much of the problem comes in for some cultures.

For some Americans and the majority of non-Westerners surveyed, happiness was seen as a portent of doom. Anyone too happy, having too much fun, or enjoying life too much was just asking for something horrible to happen, and happiness was seen as something that always has dire consequences.

While it was something prevalent in non-Western cultures, the study found that all Westerners were familiar with the idea, too, and most knew someone who subscribed to the theory. Happiness is something to be worried about, suspicious of, and something that can even cause anxiety, seeming to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. There were definite correlations between happiness aversion and how secure a person felt in daily life.

The theory behind happiness aversion is a rule in Taoism, stating that things will eventually swing back to their opposite in order to maintain balance. In Korea, happiness comes with a warning that the person will be just as sad in the future, and in Iran, the saying, “Laughing loudly wakes up sadness,” absolutely describes how they feel about being happy. Christianity teaches that happiness is all right . . . if there’s a certain amount of grace along with that. Otherwise, you might be getting into devilish territory.

And some cultures believe that being happy makes you a morally corrupt person. Many Islamic groups teach that extreme happiness is something to be avoided, because true happiness comes from God, not from fleeting, trivial, worldly things. For writers and artists, being happy has long been seen as potentially damaging to innate talent or creativity. And for some who live under incredible injustices, being happy takes on the air of being morally wrong.

So . . . Happy Fourth of July!

Show Me The Proof

EurekAlert: What’s so bad about feeling happy?
Aversion to happiness across cultures