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How you measure happiness depends on where you live

"It is important to realize that the Western-centered viewpoint is not the only viewpoint."

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Francesco Carta fotografo

Happiness governs much of human behavior. But while it's a pervasive collective value, there's no universal definition of happiness shared across cultures. Happiness means different things to different people.

In fact, evidence suggests in Western countries, people associate happiness with independence, freedom, and often, thrilling experiences. It's conceived as a "personal achievement" linked to hard work and self-esteem. Americans specifically, and typically, want to feel peppy emotions like excitement and cheerfulness.

Meanwhile, studies indicate in Eastern cultures, happiness often hinges on interdependence — the relationships and social connectedness that give life meaning and purpose.

In a new study — spanning over 15,000 people in 63 countries — researchers discovered how people measure happiness also varies from culture to culture. Different questions, the study suggests, must be asked to gauge happiness accurately in Asian, African, Middle-Eastern, and Western countries.

Study co-author Gwendolyn Gardine is a social psychologist and recent Ph.D. graduate of David Funder's Situations Lab at the University of California, Riverside. Her team's findings were published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

"It is important to realize that the Western-centered viewpoint is not the only viewpoint," Gardine tells Inverse.

"If psychologists are interested in studying the behavior of all humans, and not just Americans, we need measures that reflect more than just U.S. or Western-centered viewpoints."

What's new — For decades, scientific literature has been dominated by a narrow, Western viewpoint on happiness. That's because, as Gardiner puts it, the vast majority of psychological research involves study participants in the West, particularly in the U.S.

In recent years, non-Western happiness tests have emerged, but scientists haven't quite pinned down how different measurement tools actually work across contexts.

The blue countries represent the home nations of the study participants.

Gwen Gardiner

"Oftentimes researchers are simply interested in asking: Which country has the happiest people?" Gardiner explains. But if people have different ideas about what it means to be happy, you're going to get different answers.

"So first we need to test and see what is the best way of measuring how happy people are based on how they define what happiness is," Gardiner says.

To determine the cross-cultural similarities and differences when it comes to happiness, Gardiner and her team undertook a worldwide comparison of two tests that measure people's happiness.

They used two happiness tests:

  1. The Interdependent Happiness Scale: a test developed in Japan that emphasizes interdependence.
  2. The Subjective Happiness Scale: a test developed in the U.S. that emphasizes independence.

The interdependence-focused test looks more closely at "interpersonal harmony" and equality of accomplishment with one's peers, while the second focuses on achievement and individual feelings.

They recruited 15,358 college or university students from 63 countries across six continents to complete both tests. The group included Canadians, East Asians, Africans, Latin Americans, Americans, Southeast Asians, and people from the Middle East.

Why it matters — Across the board, tests that emphasized certain cultural values were most predictive in places that mirrored those values.

The Subjective Happiness Scale was best at measuring happiness in Western European countries like Belgium, Denmark, and the United Kingdom. It was also successful in accurately measuring happiness in countries with higher development, less population growth, and in colder climates.

In turn, it was not as effective when gauging happiness in Eastern countries, including China, Japan, and Vietnam. It performed poorly in African countries.

Meanwhile, the Interdependent Happiness scale was most reliable in Asian countries, including Japan and South Korea, and generally a less reliable predictor in Western countries. The team didn't find clear correlations connecting reliability to country-by-country factors like economic development or cultural factors.

What's next — Interestingly, the interdependence-focused test accurately measured happiness in both the United States and Japan — a surprising result as these two countries are often used as polar examples of how Eastern and Western cultures value happiness differently. Overall, it was more consistently reliable across countries than the independence test, making it a more useful research tool for future cross-cultural comparisons.

Despite some cross-cultural differences, Gardiner stresses that the two happiness tests were still "highly correlated" with each other.

"Ultimately, there are far more similarities than differences when it comes to defining and measuring happiness around the world," Gardiner says.

This study also only used two measures to define and capture happiness. There are many other aspects of happiness yet to be discovered— especially relating to Middle Eastern or African countries, Gardiner adds.

Ultimately, while this data can help people better understand each other's values, happiness is an individual experience. To become happier, researchers suggest thinking critically about how you measure your happiness.

"You might realize what does— and does not — in fact, make you happier, Gardiner says.

Abstract: What does it mean to be happy? The vast majority of cross-cultural studies on happiness have employed a Western-origin, or “WEIRD” measure of happiness that conceptualizes it as a self-centered (or “independent”), high-arousal emotion. However, research from Eastern cultures, particularly Japan, conceptualizes happiness as including an interpersonal aspect emphasizing harmony and connectedness to others. Following a combined emic- etic approach (Cheung, van de Vijver & Leong, 2011), we assessed the cross-cultural applicability of a measure of independent happiness developed in the US (Subjective Happiness Scale; Lyubomirsky & Lepper, 1999) and a measure of interdependent happiness developed in Japan (Interdependent Happiness Scale; Hitokoto & Uchida, 2015), with data from 63 countries representing 7 sociocultural regions. Results indicate that the schema of independent happiness was more coherent in more WEIRD countries. In contrast, the coherence of interdependent happiness was unrelated to a country’s “WEIRD-ness.” Reliabilities of both happiness measures were lowest in African and Middle Eastern countries, suggesting these two conceptualizations of happiness may not be globally comprehensive. Overall, while the two measures had many similar correlates and properties, the self-focused concept of independent happiness is “WEIRD-er” than interdependent happiness, suggesting cross-cultural researchers should attend to both conceptualizations.

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