The recently published Word Happiness Report 2016 reported that the top five happiest counties in the world were Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway and Finland. It also reported that when taking continents as a whole, there was a difference between the happiness scores of individualistic and collectivist cultures. Individualistic cultures are typically Western cultures whose focus is on personal attainment and collectivist cultures are mainly Eastern cultures where the focus is on group and community goals.
The report found that North America, Australia and New Zealand were the most happy with a mean happiness score of 7.125 and Western Europe had a score of 6.575, while South East Asia had a mean score of 5.363 and East Asia’s score was 5.288. On the face of it, this suggests that people in individualistic cultures are happier than those in collectivist cultures. But is this really the case?
Personal pursuit of happiness
In individualistic cultures happiness is often viewed as a personal pursuit that the individual should follow. Each person has a right to happiness and it is up to them to follow this. Of course there is a dark side to this, it implies that if you are not happy it is no one’s fault but your own.
Contrastingly in collectivist cultures, happiness is associated with social bonds and social responsibility. Happiness is a shared concept not a personal one. Personal emotions of joy and bliss are not focused on, instead the focus is on the person’s role in the community.
Different types of happiness
Broadly speaking it can be argued that this distinction mirrors the difference between hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. With hedonic well-being focusing on increasing personal pleasure and decreasing personal pain and eudaimonic well-being focusings on growth and fulfilling life’s purpose.
So why are some of the most effective methods for improving levels of happiness ones that focus on developing social bonds and connections? Aren’t these associated with the priorities of those ‘less happy’ countries? Why do they work?
Social happiness revisted
Activities such as volunteering, building relationships and random acts of kindness all encourage us to look outside of ourselves and focus on others. Doing something for others, not in order to gain anything in return, has been shown to increase happiness. Research from Exeter University has found that volunteering has been shown to not only improve happiness but to help improve mental health. Similarly in a study of resilience following economic downturn John Helliwell, from the University of British Columbia in Canada suggested that simultaneously doing things with others and for others adds to a sense of well-being. The ‘with others’ relates to the social connections that are formed when working to achieve a common goal. The ‘for others’ can be viewed as fulfilling a sense of purpose and making a social contribution which is part of eudaimonic well-being.
While there may be many reasons to explain why collectivist cultures have lower happiness scores than many individualistic cultures, we have a lot to learn to by focusing on the similarities between the cultures; people in both cultures thrive when given social responsibility. Traditional communities in the West have broken down in the last couple of generations and fortunately the West is now rediscovering the beauty of building bonds and personally contributing to society. What may have once happened naturally and universally, may now require conscious effort and fortunately more and more people understand and practice this.
Helliwell, J.F., Huang, H. & Wang, S. (2013) Social Capital and Well-Being in Times of Crisis. Journal of Happiness Studies, DOI:10.1007/s10902-013-9441-z
Jenkinson, C.E., Dickens, A.P., Jones, K., Thompson-Coon, J., Taylor, R.S., Rogers, M., Bambra, C.L. Lang, I. & Richards, S.H. (2013). Is volunteering a public health intervention? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the health and survival of volunteers. BMC Public Health, 13, article no 773. DOI: 10.1186/1471-2458-13-773
Luo Lu, L. & Gilmour, R. (2004). Culture and conceptions of happiness: individual oriented and social oriented swb. Journal of Happiness Studies, 5,3, 269-291.
Sachs, J., Becchetti, L., & Annett, A. (2016). World Happiness Report 2016, Special Rome Edition (Vol. II). New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
About the author:To find out more about Bryony Shaw MAPP, click here.