The American dream is a self-oriented one. Fulfilling it means getting everything you want out of life. But it is not necessarily a call to live selfishly. It is a call to sanctify what you can achieve and desire—to ennoble the pursuit of happiness.
This way of understanding happiness—getting what you want—is hardly unique to America; it’s more or less common in what Mohsen Joshanloo, a psychologist at Keimyung University, in South Korea, calls “individualist countries.” In Canada, Australia, and many “Western European cultures,” he says, people tend to believe internal efforts and “pleasure-seeking” lead to happiness.
This individualistic way of conceiving a happy life isn’t culturally universal, of course, he says. There’s another predominant way to understand happiness and how to attain it. People in “collectivist countries,” such as Japan, India, Thailand, and in many Middle Eastern and African cultures, says Joshanloo, tend to regard community and tradition as happiness’ source.
In a recent study, Joshanloo wanted to find out if people’s conception of happiness—as hedonistic or community grounded—could affect their level of happiness. In doing so, he discovered something fascinating: One’s level of happiness depends on the culture in which one pursues it.
In their study, he and his colleague Aaron Jarden, a senior lecturer at Auckland University of Technology, asked nearly 7,000 people, across 19 countries, to complete a survey called the International Wellbeing Study.
Controlling for age, gender, and national economic prosperity, what they found might seem surprising: People who associate happiness with hedonism and pleasure-seeking in individualist cultures—like in the U.S., Canada, and Australia—tended to be happier than people with the same associations in collectivist cultures, like in Japan, Indonesia, and Thailand.
It may seem like a natural finding that hedonists are better suited to individualist cultures, where being happy “seems to be a cultural imperative,” says Joshanloo. In collectivist cultures, happiness is defined quite differently: “Interpersonal harmony, self-transcendence, and contributing to the collective, tend to be equally or more highly valued than experiencing pleasure and subjective happiness,” Joshanloo says.
However, the path to happiness in individualist cultures can be grueling. Generally, it requires one to achieve, gain, or produce something valuable (to the culture) and then to keep on achieving, gaining, or producing it to stay happy, says Joshanloo. Happiness in individualist cultures, in other words, is reserved for people who manage to be successful—or at least manage to perceive themselves as such.
This way of viewing happiness, says Joshanloo, is a particularly useful for free-market, capitalist societies, because it means workers will have deep, internal motives to find joy in what they do and continue to produce for and buy from the market. But it is devastating for people who accept that view of happiness and for whatever reason—market failures, bad policies, or unfortunate socio-economic circumstances—never actually find success or feel fulfilled. In collectivist cultures, this sort of pressure is generally absent, as happiness is less predicated on satisfying personal desires.
Long ago, Plato and Aristotle believed that individuals should work out their own definition of happiness.
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