In Christian languages, happiness gets a less honorable reputation than joy and well-being. But life would hardly be worth living if there weren’t moments of happiness along the way. A universal framework for well-being is far from universal. Here are four models to help clarify your own understanding of happiness and a bit of the world around you.

The United Nations tells us every single year where the happiest people in the world live. For the past several years, Finland has been ranked No. 1, sitting atop the pack of Nordic countries, which are all considered very happy. And since they’ve cracked the happiness code, as Joe Pinsker wrote recently, many of the rest of us are tempted to mimic Nordic habits. Live like a Finn—take a short walk in the forest, go ice swimming—and all will be well, right?

Not so fast. In order for the World Happiness Report and other international happiness indexes to compare self-reports of happiness, they assume that people around the world define happiness and answer happiness surveys in roughly the same way; logically, they assume that there is a universal background of “happiness” in order to distinguish levels of happiness. If this assumption does not hold, then happiness indexes are as reliable as judging music quality based on how much, say, Korean residents say they like K-pop. This would indicate something about each country’s enthusiasm for their musical styles but would provide little information about the underlying background that measures music as “better or worse,” given differences in people’s traditions and tastes.

The research on how people around the world conceive of well-being, in fact, reveals some major differences among nations. Understanding these differences gives us a much richer picture of global happiness than any index can depict. But more important, it provides a suite of models for well-being that each of us can follow. And for some of us, we might be able to cross the lines of the models. They are provided here for the purposes of articulation – so that we can be clear about our own understanding of happiness and learn much more about one foundational category by which we not only enjoy life but also, perhaps, experience it as well.

On the first pass, the ways people around the world say they experience happiness have some obvious commonalities. One 2016 study of 2,799 adults in 12 countries found that in all the nations studied, psychological definitions of happiness—“an inner state, feeling or attitude”—dominated all others. In particular, people worldwide said they found happiness in achieving “inner harmony.”

Inner harmony might sound universal, but it can mean very different things in different places. For example, two years ago a documentary film in Denmark on the pursuit of happiness discovered that the Danes often described inner harmony in terms of hygge, which is something like coziness and comfortable conviviality. Americans, two years ago, tended to define inner harmony in terms of their skills meeting their passions, usually in the context of work.

So psychological definitions don’t nail down happiness much. And from there, the differences among countries only widen. The same 2016 study cited above found, for example, that 49 percent of Americans referred explicitly to family relationships in their definition of happiness, while Southern Europeans and Latin Americans generally conceived of it in terms of oneself: Just 22 percent of Portuguese, 18 percent of Mexicans, and 10 percent of Argentines talked about their families in their happiness definitions.

Writing in the International Journal of Wellbeing in 2012, two Japanese scholars surfaced an important cultural difference in the definition of happiness between Western and Asian cultures. In the West, they found happiness to be defined as “a high arousal state such as excitement and a sense of personal achievement.” Meanwhile, in Asia, “happiness is defined in terms of experiencing a low arousal state such as calmness.”

In large countries, even comparing people within the same borders can be difficult to accomplish accurately. Happiness is defined very differently in northern versus southern India, for example. And research shows that the United States is home to significant regional differences in personality characteristics. For example, people in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions tend to display more attachment anxiety (“When will you call?”), while the western states breed more attachment avoidance (“See you when I see you”).

Even the words we use to talk about happiness have different connotations in different tongues. In Germanic languages, happiness is rooted in words related to fortune or positive fate. In fact, happiness comes from the Middle English hap, which means “luck.” Meanwhile, in Latin-based languages, the term comes from felicitas, which referred in ancient Rome not just to good luck, but also to growth, fertility, and prosperity.

Thus, cultures vary widely in their definitions of happiness. Therefore, it is impossible to say that one country is happier than another in some absolute sense, and a single index of “the happiest countries in the world” is not instructive. Happiness can be defined and measured in a lot of different ways. Maybe Finland is the happiest country by one definition; it is almost certainly not by another. Countries should be classified more than compared. If fact, it is asking a different question. Instead of ranking the top countries to figure out who is the best, it is asking what being happy even means in a particular place. It is a work of articulation and re-articulation.

A handy way to get started on that task is to distinguish between two ways of focusing on happiness. It gives a nice 2 X 2 chart in which to plot different places based on survey results. The first is an “inner” or “outer” focus on happiness—that is, on introspection versus interaction with others. The second is a “relation” or “task” focus—people-oriented versus doing-oriented. This gives us four major models for well-being, based on survey research from around the world.

1. Happiness comes from good relationships with the people you love.

This is a combination of the “outer” and “relation” foci. In this model, friends and family are who deliver the most happiness. A good example of a country that fits this model based on how the population tends to define happiness is the United States.

2. Happiness comes from a higher consciousness.

This is a combination of the “inner” and “relation” foci, and is the model for highly spiritual, philosophical, or religious people, especially those who place a special importance on coming together in community. Southern India has been found to be home to a lot of people who follow this model.

3. Happiness comes from doing what you love, usually with others.

This is a combination of the “outer” and “task” foci—that is, a dedication to work or leisure activities that are deeply fulfilling. This is your model if you tend to say “My work is my life” or “I love golfing with my friends.” Look for it in the Nordic countries and Central Europe.

4. Happiness comes from simply feeling good.

This is a combination of the “inner” and “task” foci. It is the model for people who prioritize experiences that give them positive feelings, whether alone or with others. It’s a good way to assess your well-being if, when you imagine being happy, you think of watching Netflix or drinking wine. This model is most common in Latin America, the Mediterranean, and South Africa.

This classification is not exhaustive, of course; plenty of people and countries cannot be neatly placed along these axes. Indeed, your conception of happiness might be a mix of these models. However, they provide a starting point to understanding the numerous concepts of well-being around the world—and the ones inside your own head and heart.

Just as different places have different definitions of happiness, so do different people. Understanding that diversity can help you understand yourself—to see whether and why you are a misfit in your home, and what you might do about it, whether that’s moving, joining a new community, or simply making peace with your surroundings.

In my case, I am married to an introverted Thai woman. I am an outgoing Mennonite Canadian man. And our children are a mix of the two anchor cultures with a large number of minor cultures along the way. On the Canadian side, if something is not functional, it won’t contribute to your happiness.  On the Thai side, if it is neither fun nor beautiful, then it should be discarded. And beauty, function, and fun become our hybrid experience of happiness – together.

How about you? 

4 thoughts on “Different Cultures, Different Kinds of Happiness

  1. Thoughtful post, Ray, thanks. A question that comes to mind is how we would understand happiness in a consciously multi-ethnic country like Canada? And given the diversity of cultures in the US and many other countries throughout the world as immigration keeps on happening, I wonder who is doing the measuring and what measures they are using to say there is a predominant “way” of being happy in particular cultures and countries? And all throughout Canada, Indigenous folks are different in so many ways.


    1. While the cultural lens may be helpful, it may be important to understand happiness as informed by the micro-cultural influences. My article, of course implicitly, sends up the questions of who is measuring and by what standard. Indigenous measurements would be very interesting.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s