I’ve made the point often enough, but still, why not make it again. This time with the imprimatur of Scientific American.
The point is that the standard Western concept of happiness differs markedly from the standard Asian or Eastern concept.
We in the West associate happiness with personal fulfillment and especially with the experience of pleasure. In the East, people believe that social harmony is more important than individual fulfillment and thus we maintain a different concept of happiness.
One suspects that what passes for the standard Western mode of happiness-seeking owes much to the therapy culture.
Writing in Scientific American, Jennifer Aaker and Emily Esfahani Smith explain:
Everyone wants to be happy. It's a fundamental human right. It's associated with all sorts of benefits. We, as a society, spend millions trying to figure out what the key to personal happiness is. There are now even apps to help us turn our frowns upside down. So everyone wants to be happy—right?
In Eastern cultures, the emphasis is on attainment of social harmony, where community and belonging are held in high regard. In Western cultures, the emphasis is on attainment of happiness, where the individualistic self tends to be celebrated.
Researchers have also studied the way happiness is defined in different dictionaries from different nations:
These values translate to different weights placed on personal happiness. In one paper, Oishi and his colleagues examined the definition of happiness in dictionaries from 30 nations, and found that internal inner feelings of pleasure defined happiness in Western cultures, more so than East Asian cultures. Instead, East Asians cultures define happiness more in line with social harmony, and it is associated with good luck and fortune. Indeed, when researchers measure feelings of positive affect or pleasure, they go hand in hand with enhanced feelings of happiness by North America individuals but not by East Asian individuals. Instead, social factors - such as adapting to social norms or fulfilling relational obligations – were associated with enhanced feelings of happiness in East Asia.
Aaker and Smith believe, as I do, that we would do well to take a lesson from the Eastern approach. Perhaps we should not see happiness solely in individual terms. Perhaps we should act as though we have a greater awareness of our social being, that is, of other people. Perhaps we should seek out another form of happiness.
In their words:
But prioritizing personal happiness leads to a number of problems, like focusing too much on the self. Perhaps we need a more balanced approach to happiness in American culture. Personal happiness is beneficial in some contexts, a limitation in others—good in moderation, but harmful in excess. In some moments, we may need and benefit from feeling good, but in other moments, we might be better served anchoring on balanced, meaningful life focused on others. Happiness, in this light, is not the proverbial goal to chase, but a (happy) outcome of a life well lived.