How We Measure Happiness Depends on Where We Live

What inspires happiness — and how we quantify it — differs by culture and region. Researchers sought to bring Western and Eastern values together to create a global standard of measuring joy.

(Image by Gino Crescoli from Pixabay)

(CN) — Levels of happiness are often measured by WEIRD standards. That is, according to the standards of western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic countries. As part of the International Situations Project, a study published in PLOS ONE on Wednesday combines one Western measurement of happiness with an Eastern measurement in efforts to understand joy on a global level.

“The focus of the paper is primarily aimed towards other researchers interested in studying how happiness varies around the world and the importance of selecting the right measures to test this, but the results also reveal some insights into how the concept of happiness might differ by culture,” explained lead author Gwen Gardiner in an email from Germany, where she is working under a Humboldt Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship.

“Based on our results it seems that one of the universal aspects of happiness is actually the absence of big worries or stress,” the University of California, Riverside, graduate said. “People may differ on how intensely happy they want to feel, but most seem to agree the absence of negativity is a positive thing.”

What inspires happiness — and how it feels — differs culture to culture. In Protestant-influenced Western countries like the United States, happiness is often linked to self-esteem and success at individualized goals. The feeling of being happy for an American is often an intense feeling.

In Buddhist-influenced Eastern countries like Japan, however, happiness is a more balanced, harmonious feeling rather than an extreme high, and is often attributed to good fortune rather than a personal achievement. The Korean culture often connects a sense of happiness to pride of family.

To develop a measurement that can evaluate multiple aspects of the joy spectrum, researchers combined the U.S. Subjective Happiness Scale with the Interdependent Happiness Scale developed in Japan. Utilizing university networks, the team surveyed 15,368 people across 63 countries. On average 246 people weighed in from each country from Argentina to the Czech Republic, Jordan and Kenya to New Zealand, the Philippines, and the United Kingdom. Nearly 71% of respondents were women and most were in their early 20s.

Respondents that ranked highly on one scale were likely to rank highly on the other, suggesting commonalities in perceived happiness.

“In our case, despite the variability in how well the measures performed across countries, there was still a strong relationship between the two measures in every country we tested,” Gardiner said. “This means that although one measure may be a better representation of how someone defines their own happiness, there is still a lot of overlap in how we define happiness. Ultimately, we are much more similar to each other than we are different.”

Between the two scales, Hungary, New Zealand and Romania ranked highest, while Indonesia, Uganda and Nigeria ranked so low that researchers concluded neither measurement is a good fit for understanding happiness in Africa or the Middle East. 

“Multiple tests of measurement reliability revealed that, as might be expected, the reliability of each measure of happiness was stronger in regions more culturally similar to the country of the measure’s origin,” the study authors wrote. “Specifically, the interdependent measure of happiness had the highest overall reliabilities in East Asian countries, while the independent measure of happiness had the highest reliabilities in Western Europe.”

Gardiner added that because the project is ongoing, more data was recently collected during the Covid-19 pandemic. Though it is too early to draw conclusions from more recent data, Gardiner wonders whether the events have contributed to a shift in how people perceive happiness.

“Perhaps some people, particularly in the West, who were forced to stay home and give up on their previous fun, happiness-inducing outings may shift their focus towards more interpersonal and close social connections as a source of happiness,” Gardiner said.

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