Scientists Look Beyond the WEIRD World of Happiness

Psychological scientists once equated happiness with well-being, but recent research suggests that there is significant cultural variation in the ingredients of a good life.

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Holism, happiness, and harmony  Feeling interdependent emotions together An imperfect approach to happiness

People from Western cultures often equate “well-being” with “being happy” but the way that WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) societies prioritize the pursuit of happiness is far from universal. 

Well-being, in addition to economic development, is one of the primary compasses that international policymakers use to guide decisions about how to serve a given society, said Kuba Krys, a psychological scientist who studies the cultural nuances of well-being at the Polish Academy of Sciences. Reevaluating how we measure well-being could be an important step toward conducting more culturally informed science, he asserted. 

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“We need to broaden our thinking about well-being from just being focused on happiness to studying the interdependent network of components that constitute a good life for people in the West and around the world,” said Krys. “There is a lot of research into how to make happy people happier, which is fine, but this research ignores fact that happy people may already be happy enough.”  

Happiness is just one of the components that people use to evaluate the subjective quality of their lives, Krys, APS Fellow Yukiko Uchida (Kyoto University), and colleagues wrote in a 2024 Perspectives on Psychological Science article. Though Edward Diener’s 1995 theory of subjective well-being originally framed well-being as consisting of life satisfaction, frequent positive emotions, and infrequent negative emotions, subsequent work has since expanded this concept to include a sense of existential meaning, spiritual connection, harmony with the world, and other elements of a good life, Krys and colleagues explained. Additionally, although Diener’s model positions happiness as the end result of a satisfying life, a new paradigm considers happiness to be one of many ingredients that contribute to individual well-being.  

The significance of this contribution also appears to vary across cultural contexts. Japanese culture, for example, often emphasizes interpersonal harmony and self-improvement, while Islamic culture emphasizes religion and morality, which could lead people to have different perspectives on well-being, the authors wrote. 

“If subjective well-being is a network of interdependent components, then various ‘ideal mixtures’ of these components are plausible. Some people may idealize happiness above all, others may idealize sense of meaning over happiness, and yet others may idealize spirituality over happiness,” Krys and colleagues wrote. “The ‘recipe’ may vary across people and cultures.” 

Holism, happiness, and harmony 

Krys and another group of researchers further explored cultural variations in happiness through a 2020 analysis of 13,000 people from 49 countries. In a survey, 97% of participants reported wanting to be at least a little happy, and just 15% of respondents reported that their ideal happiness level was the maximum possible. WEIRD societies reported higher ideal happiness levels. In Germany and Iceland, for example, over 80% of participants reported an ideal happiness level above “very happy” while 70% of participants from Bhutan, Ghana, Nigeria, Japan, and Pakistan reported an ideal happiness level below “very happy” (Krys et al., 2020). 

These cultural differences could reflect the longstanding effects of ecological conditions, Krys and colleagues suggest. WEIRD societies tend to occupy more benign geographic regions with cool, navigable waters, fewer pathogens, and a low risk of natural disasters. These cultures may place a high value on happiness because, historically, people could afford to spend more resources pursuing it, the researchers explained. 

“These exceptional eco-environmental conditions might have fostered the emergence of cultures prioritizing happiness maximization,” they wrote. “In Northwestern Europe, it was easier to escape much human suffering and in consequence to idealize high levels of happiness.” A culture’s philosophical orientation also appears to influence how people value happiness and other components of well-being. 

“For most people happiness (and many other positive things) is not seen as perfect ideals that people strive toward,” said psychological researcher Paul Bain of the University of Bath. The vast majority of people want their lives to have more happiness than sadness but do not want to eradicate sadness from their lives.”  

In a pair of studies published in Psychological Science, a research team including Bain found that people from holistic cultures that emphasize dialecticism—a philosophical perspective that embraces the continuously changing, contradictory nature of life—reported lower ideal levels of happiness and other positive states than those from cultures that have a lower tolerance for contradiction. Holism, with philosophical roots in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism, is more common in East Asian cultures than in Western societies, the researchers noted. 

In their initial study of 2,392 people, the researchers found that participants from all cultures reported an average ideal of 70% to 80% of possible happiness, freedom, self-esteem, pleasure, longevity, and intelligence. 

“Generally, the key idea is that most people aspire to a reasonable balance of positive and negative things in their lives, a bit like what Aristotle called the ‘golden mean,’” Bain said. Only a few people see their ideal lives as being blissfully and perfectly happy. A more provocative implication is that the findings suggest it’s possible to have too much happiness.” There were important cultural variations in these findings, however. Participants from the holistic countries of China, Hong Kong, India, and Japan reported lower ideal personal levels of these traits than participants from the nonholistic countries of Australia, Chile, Peru, Russia, and the United States. 

Furthermore, while Eastern societies also tend to be more collectivist, Bain and colleagues found no correlation between each country’s levels of collectivism, indicating that these represent separate cultural constructs. 

In the same Psychological Science article, a second study of 6,874 participants from 27 countries notably included the Philippines and Indonesia—societies with collectivist but not holistic cultures. In addition to replicating their previous findings, the researchers found that the Philippines and Indonesia ranked third and fourth highest for maximalization among countries in the study, indicating that holism and not collectivism may be responsible for cultural preferences for moderation (Bain et al., 2018). 

Feeling interdependent emotions together 

Cultural differences can also influence people’s conception of emotions, Uchida said in an interview. In more independent cultures, people tend to view emotions as emerging from within, but people from more interdependent cultures may view emotions as emerging from a social context in which they are shared with other people, Uchida, Masataka Nakayama, and Kimberly S. Bowen (Kyoto University) explained in an article in Current Directions in Psychological Science

“The characteristics of interdependent happiness emerge because an individual’s state of happiness is considered to be inseparable from and interdependent with the happiness of other people in the context to which the individual belongs,” they wrote. “Hence, there is an understanding that sustainable happiness is achieved by seeking harmony with other individuals who share the same context.” These cultural conceptions of agency have implications for how people experience happiness and for their ideal levels of happiness. In interdependent contexts that emphasize balance and harmony, being too happy could be considered socially disruptive, the researchers explained (Uchida et al., 2022). 

“In many Western societies, people say that happiness allows them to contribute to society, gives them confidence, and empowers them to change the world,” Uchida said. “In a Japanese context, people avoid maximizing because it does not feel like a verification of self-worth, and if they seek more and more there could be negative impacts toward other people. There is an intuitive understanding of this.” 

The culture in which a person experiences particular emotions may even influence the relationship between emotions and health. In a Japanese context, for example, experiencing culturally congruent interdependent happiness has been found to prevent the activation of proinflammatory genes. But Japanese people do not appear to receive the same benefits from pleasure-based independent happiness, Uchida, Nakayama, and Bowen noted. 

“It’s a philosophical question, but it’s very important to think about in psychology how each person intuitively understands the culturally constructed meaning system and the consequences of maximalization,” Uchida said. “In some contexts, individual seeking is fine, in other contexts group-level family, group, or nation seeking may be more approved or appreciated.” 

An imperfect approach to happiness 

These findings have significant implications for how well-being is measured in psychological science, Bain said. 

“Many approaches to well-being implicitly or explicitly have ‘perfect’ happiness as an endpoint,” Bain said. “However, our findings suggest it’s possible that some people’s desired levels of happiness are lower than the top of the scale. Pretty happy may be as much as they want.” 

Acknowledging that, for many people, well-being is about more than just happiness is an important step toward conceptual pluralism in psychological science, Krys and colleagues noted. 

“Applying WEIRD theorizing on subjective well-being to other parts of the world bears the risk of imposing WEIRD standards to ‘educate’ or ‘help develop’ others—often people in former colonialized regions,” Krys and colleagues wrote. “Recognizing that happiness is not tantamount to subjective well-being and that subjective well-being is a much more complex and multidimensional phenomenon is a step toward decolonizing psychology.” 

In addition to providing new directions for research, reframing happiness as a byproduct of desirable activities, such as socializing, rather than a goal in and of itself, could help make well-being more achievable, Bain proposed. 

“Perversely, I think there is an impetus to present ‘ideal’ happiness as always something ‘beyond our reach,’” he said. “It’s supposed unachievability means that we are susceptible to influences that promise to move us closer to that ideal. This means that we can never fully be happy — but our research indicates that this doesn’t correspond to how most people think about happiness. Not everyone wants to be fully happy.” 

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Hornsey, M. J., Bain, P. G., Harris, E. A., Lebedeva, N., Kashima, E. S., Guan, Y., González, R., Chen, S. X., & Blumen, S. (2018). How much is enough in a perfect world? Cultural variation in ideal levels of happiness, pleasure, freedom, health, self-esteem, longevity, and intelligence. Psychological Science, 29(9), 1393-1404.  

Krys, K., et al. (2024). Happiness maximization is a WEIRD way of living. Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Kryś, K., Park, J., Kocimska‐Zych, A., Kosiarczyk, A., Selim, H. A., Wojtczuk‐Turek, A., Haas, B. W., Uchida, Y., Torres, C., Capaldi, C. A., Bond, M. H., Zelenski, J. M., Lun, V. M., Maricchiolo, F., Vauclair, C., Šolcová, I. P., Sirlopú, D., Xing, C., Vignoles, V. L., . . . Adamovic, M. (2020). Personal life satisfaction as a measure of societal happiness is an individualistic presumption: Evidence from fifty countries. Journal of Happiness Studies, 22(5), 2197–2214.  

Uchida, Y., Nakayama, M., & Bowen, K. S. (2022). Interdependence of emotion: Conceptualization, evidence, and social implications from cultural psychology. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 31(5), 451-456.  

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