Various cultures don’t place happiness above all else in terms of well-being.

Various cultures don’t place happiness above all else in terms of well-being.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Cultural diversity impacts perceptions of happiness: Cultural influences shape how people across nations interpret and respond to happiness surveys.
  2. Western bias in happiness metrics: The definition and measurement of happiness may be skewed towards Western ideals, affecting global rankings.
  3. Understanding survey responses: Not everyone interprets happiness metrics in the same way, as demonstrated by disparities in responses based on education and cultural background.
  4. Fear of happiness: Cultural factors, especially outside the West, can influence people’s reluctance to express high levels of happiness openly, affecting survey outcomes.
  5. Broadening well-being metrics: There’s a call to expand beyond solely measuring happiness in global reports, acknowledging diverse cultural values and alternative indicators of well-being.

“Assessment of the most joyful nations disregards the cognitive approach to happiness among their populace.

For the seventh consecutive year, the Finns have clinched the apex position as the globe’s most contented populace. This revelation stems from the 2024 World Happiness Report, unveiled on March 20. As anticipated, other Nordic nations—Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, and Norway—also feature prominently within the top 10 rankings.

Since the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed March 20 as the International Day of Happiness in 2012, a coalition of international bodies has annually published these happiness rankings along with comprehensive well-being reports. These rankings offer nations a metric to gauge national prosperity—thus prompting the formulation of policies aimed at enriching well-being—beyond mere economic indicators like gross domestic product, which often fuels unsustainable growth.

However, while there may be merits in transcending conventional economic metrics as benchmarks of a nation’s triumph, the definition of happiness isn’t universally homogeneous.

Culture plays a pivotal role in shaping the responses of individuals from various nations to happiness surveys, asserts macropsychologist Kuba Krys of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, who isn’t associated with the report. “We should exercise caution in drawing sweeping conclusions based on such cross-national comparisons.”

Furthermore, the prevailing definition and comprehension of happiness may be tainted by a Western bias, prevalent in societies designated as WEIRD—Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic, notes Krys.

The happiness rankings in the report rely on responses to a solitary inquiry in the Gallup World Poll: “Visualize a ladder with rungs numbered from 0 at the nadir to 10 at the zenith. If we consider the pinnacle of the ladder as representing the most satisfactory life for you, and the bottom as representing the least satisfactory, on which rung of the ladder do you perceive yourself to be at present?”

On average, respondents from Finland position themselves just below the eighth rung. Conversely, respondents from the United States place approximately one rung lower, relegating them to the 23rd position. Meanwhile, individuals in Afghanistan have yet to ascend beyond the second rung.

Assessing happiness The World Gallup Poll prompts individuals to envision their existence on a ladder, with 0 symbolizing the direst life and 10 the optimal. These scores are subsequently aggregated by country to formulate the World Happiness rankings, a selection of which is displayed below. As anticipated, the Nordic nations dominated the 2024 rankings, while non-Western nations such as India and Tanzania occupied lower positions. Nonetheless, many scholars argue that this method of understanding and quantifying happiness harbors a Western predisposition, rendering such rankings contentious.

However, Krys and others cast doubt on the feasibility of meaningfully comparing such scores across diverse nations. For instance, upon querying 200 Tanzanians, residents of a low-ranking nation, on how they determined their position on the ladder, it was discovered that slightly over a third, mostly individuals with limited formal education, failed to grasp the question’s essence. As cultural psychologist Michael Kaufman and his colleagues revealed in a 2022 publication in the International Journal of Wellbeing, one woman vacillated between assigning scores of 0 and 10, while another escalated her score from 6 to 8 under the impression that it would yield financial benefits.

“Do individuals, particularly those with a 7th grade education, comprehend a Western construct of evaluating one’s life experiences on a linear continuum?” questions Kaufman, an international development advisor based in Chicago. “The response is: ‘No, they do not.'”

Additionally, personality and cultural psychologist Mohsen Joshanloo highlights that many individuals, particularly outside the Western sphere, harbor apprehensions that openly acknowledging high levels of happiness might attract negative consequences. His research indicates that this apprehension can depress scores on standardized surveys.

“Fear of happiness is a tangible phenomenon that influences how individuals worldwide perceive and express their happiness and respond to queries regarding their happiness,” asserts Joshanloo, affiliated with Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.

Similarly, Krys’ research underscores that not everyone aspires to maximal happiness. His team scrutinized survey responses from nearly 13,000 individuals across 49 nations. Rather than responding from their personal standpoint, respondents were tasked with evaluating the degree to which an “ideal or perfect individual” would concur with various statements pertaining to happiness.

Sample statements included: “In most aspects, my life mirrors my ideal,” and “The circumstances of my life are exceptional.” Responses spanned from 1 denoting “completely incongruous” to 9 denoting “completely congruous.”

The notion of ideal happiness varied significantly by nation, as per Krys and collaborators’ findings. In Germany and Iceland, approximately 85 percent of respondents posited that ideal happiness correlated with scores of 7 and above. However, in Bhutan, Ghana, Nigeria, Japan, and Pakistan, 70 percent or more of respondents opted for a lower ideal, the team divulged in February within Perspectives on Psychological Science.

“We, in the Western hemisphere, are propelled by the principle of maximization,” contends Krys. “We yearn for more of everything. Yet, this inclination isn’t universally embraced.”

In theory, researchers could recalibrate rankings to reflect a culture’s optimal level of happiness. Perhaps Japan’s rating of 6 on the happiness ladder is truly a notch higher, or the United States’ score of 6.7 is actually a notch lower. Nonetheless, Krys contends that a myopic fixation on happiness per se is fraught with challenges.

Non-Western cultures often accord greater significance to alternative facets of a fulfilling existence, such as serenity, spirituality, or purpose, studies indicate. Additionally, there are instances where scores in one category clash with those in another. For instance, impoverished nations scoring low in happiness often exhibit high scores in life satisfaction, researchers disclosed in a 2014 publication in the Journal of Research in Personality. Conversely, the inverse holds true for affluent nations.

According to Lara Aknin, a social psychologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada, and a co-editor of the report, researchers involved in the World Happiness Report are actively exploring alternative measures of well-being that may enjoy broader applicability.

In 2022, the report’s researchers delved into the concepts of equilibrium and concord by scrutinizing queries related to these concepts within the 2020 Gallup World Poll. Their findings unveiled a universal valuation of these concepts, with a prevailing preference for a tranquil existence over a stimulating one.

“The findings imply that a significant proportion of individuals worldwide, not solely those outside North America, seek and cherish equilibrium and harmony,” Aknin affirms.

Krys and others advocate not for the abolition of happiness rankings but for the diversification of well-being metrics disseminated by the report’s authors. “Happiness reigns as the ultimate objective in the World Happiness Report,” Krys opines. “However, happiness does not epitomize the universal, singular objective of individuals’ lives.”

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