Happiness is culture dependent


Can happiness be measured across cultures? (Image: Prostock Studio / iStock)

What does happiness mean? When researchers want to measure how happy people are, they often use standardized questionnaires called happiness scales. But the western tests, which focus on individual development, are less reliable in other parts of the world, as a study in 63 countries now shows. A luck test developed in Japan that focuses on the connection with others proved to be more suitable.

Where do the happiest people in the world live? To answer questions like these, scientists measure happiness using standardized questionnaires. Almost all of the happiness tests used to date have been developed in Western countries. They reflect the Western Protestant attitude that happiness is related to personal success and is associated with strong positive feelings. But how universally applicable are such tests? A contrast is provided by a happiness scale that was developed in Japan in 2014. According to the Buddhist culture, harmony with others and oneself is an indicator of happiness.

Individual or shared happiness

A team led by Gwendolyn Gardiner from the University of California in Riverside has now examined the extent to which Western, individually-oriented happiness tests and Asian, community-oriented happiness tests accurately measure happiness levels in 63 culturally very different countries around the world. More than 15,000 test persons from all inhabited continents filled out both the catalog of questions for the widespread American happiness scale “Subjective Happiness Scale” and that of the “Interdependent Happiness Scale” developed in Japan.

To assess the reliability of the two tests, the researchers evaluated, among other things, how consistent the answers were within the two questionnaires. The idea behind it: Depending on the culture, the formulation of the questions can arouse different associations. In the American test, for example, the test subjects are asked to assess whether they believe they are happier than other people. The Japanese test, on the other hand, asks how much the test persons agree with the statement that they are just as happy as the people around them.

A particularly happy Japanese would therefore possibly only give an apparently mediocre happiness value for this question in the American test, while he can correctly express his high level of happiness in other questions. From the inconsistency of the answers, the researchers can see that the test is apparently less suitable for people from the respective culture.

People from other cultures are happy differently

In fact, it turned out that the American happiness test is particularly reliable for people from Western countries. In contrast, the Japanese test achieved more precise results in Asia. In the two countries in which the tests were developed, the USA and Japan, of all places, the differences were only minor. “This result is surprising to us, because usually the US and Japan are the prototype countries when it comes to highlighting cultural differences in psychology,” says Gardiner. “But in this case they were more alike than expected.”

The following was true worldwide: The American luck test achieved both the highest and the lowest reliability values, depending on whether it was about western or non-western cultures. In Western cultures, there was also a clear correlation between high happiness values ​​and factors such as prosperity, education and low population growth for this happiness scale. The Japanese scale, on the other hand, has a smaller range of fluctuation and is roughly similarly reliable in all the countries examined. Happiness measured on this scale correlated less with other, country-related factors. According to the researchers, this scale is therefore better suited for cross-cultural comparisons, despite its somewhat lower overall reliability.

Both tests for countries in Africa and the Middle East had the lowest reliability. “This indicates that neither of the two understandings of happiness fits these cultures particularly well,” the researchers conclude. For future research, it could be interesting to record special happiness concepts in these regions and to include them in new happiness tests. “What does it mean to be happy?” The researchers ask in conclusion. “As our study shows, the answer depends to a large extent on where you live.”

Source: Gwendolyn Gardiner (University of California) et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, doi: 10.1371 / journal.pone.0242718

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