Subjective Well-Being and Culture

by James E. Maddux, Ph.D., CWB Senior Scholar

Subjective Well-Being and Culture

How would you rate your day today so far? When asked that question as part of the 2017 Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Survey, 73 percent of Nigerians said that they were having a particularly good day, while only 7 percent of Japanese respondents described their day as “particularly good,” with Latin Americans (48 percent), Americans (44 percent), Middle Easterners (25 percent) and Europeans (22 percent) falling in between the joyful Nigerians and the dour Japanese.

How do we account for these differences? How do we explain why so many more relatively poor (by economic standards) Nigerians seem much happier with their lives than the much wealthier Japanese and Europeans? If we cannot explain these differences by differences in economics, then perhaps we can explain them by differences in culture – differences in the “system or pattern of beliefs, values, and practices shared and socially transmitted among people in a relatively enduring context” (Tov & Nai, 2018).

Cultural differences can influence subjective well-being in several ways. First, and perhaps the most obvious from survey results, is that cultures and countries can differ in the average level of subjective well-being reported by members or citizens. The nations of the world differ greatly in the subjective well-being reported by their citizens. The various international surveys do not always give the same results, but some clear trends usually emerge. For example, the citizens of relatively wealthy, stable democratic countries usually report greater subjective well-being than do the citizens of poorer non-democratic or politically unstable countries (Tov & Nai, 2018). The problem with sorting out causal effects here is that stable, democratic political systems and economic affluence typically go hand in hand, as do authoritarian or unstable political systems and a relative lack of economic development. Are the citizens of relatively wealthy democracies generally happier because they have more material wealth or because they have more political freedom and stability? Perhaps it’s both, but we can’t really be certain.

Second, cultures can differ in how strongly the three major components of subjective well-being (positive affect, negative affect, and life satisfaction) correlate with each other -- differences in the structure of subjective well-being. For example, Easterners tend to report a greater mixture of positive and negative emotions in their daily lives than do Westerners (Tov & Nai, 2018). In addition, positive and negative emotions are more closely related to reports of life satisfaction among Westerners than among Easterners (Tov & Nai, 2018). 

Third, cultures can differ in what predicts subjective well-being and what subjective well-being predicts -- the correlates of subjective well-being (Tov & Nai, 2018). For example, greater self-esteem is generally associated with greater subjective well-being in almost all cultures, but the strength of this association can vary across cultures (Tov & Nai, 2018). For example, the association between self-esteem and life satisfaction is usually smaller among East Asian populations than among Western populations (Tov & Nai, 2018). In addition, some studies suggest that relationship harmony and pursuing goals that make other people happy are more closely related to subjective well-being among Asians and Asian Americans than among European Americans (Tov & Nai, 2018). 

Differences in individualism and collectivism may make a difference here. In more individualist cultures, people emphasize the achievement of personal goals over the achievement of group goals and use their personal attitudes and preferences to guide their behavior. In more collectivist cultures, people usually emphasize in-group goals over personal goals and rely primarily on group norms to guide their behavior (Tov & Nai, 2018)

Subjective well-being in Eastern cultures is more closely tied to contributions to family and group than to the enjoyment of individual achievements. Among Koreans, the word most frequently associated with “happiness” among Koreans is “family,” while among Americans it is “smile.” Koreans also associate “happiness” with social words more than Americans do and are more likely than Americans to associate “happiness” with “family” than with “friends.”

People in East Asian cultures are more likely to equate subjective well-being with the experience of low-arousal emotions such as contentment, peace, and tranquility rather than the more high-arousal emotions of happiness and joy that are more highly valued in Western cultures (Joshanloo, 2014).

Cultures can also differ in their conceptions of subjective well-being and the value they place on subjective well-being.  Western and individualist cultures value pride and self-satisfaction more highly than Eastern and collectivist cultures do. In Eastern conceptions of subjective well-being, self-transcendence (that is, forgetting about the self) is more important than the self-enhancement (bolstering your sense of self) that is more characteristic of Western conceptions of subjective well-being. Likewise, Western cultures promote an independent self that views the self as an autonomous entity, distinct and separable from others and stable across situations. In contrast, non-Western cultures are more likely to promote an interdependent self that views the self as an entity that is fundamentally connected to others and can change as situations change (Tov & Nai, 2018). In addition, in Eastern cultures, harmony is more highly valued than mastery, and valuing suffering is more important than avoiding suffering (Joshanloo, 2014).

One of the greatest difficulties in comparing subjective well-being across societies and cultures is that differences in languages can make it difficult to compare surveys on subjective well-being from country to country. For example, the German word gluck can mean either happiness or luck, depending on the context, while in English, the words happy and lucky clearly refer to different concepts. But even in English, happy can refer to a fleeting feeling or a deep and enduring state (Swanson, 2016). Chinese has several different terms for the English notion of happiness, each with a different meaning (Swanson, 2016). When scales are translated from one language into another, the meaning of an item may be inadvertently altered because some words in one language might not have an exact equivalent in another language (Tov & Nai, 2018).

George Mason University is one of the most culturally diverse universities in the United States, with students from dozens of different countries who speak many different languages. Our cultural differences impact the ways we thrive together in our university community.

How can our diverse university’s plan for making Mason a model well-being university take cultural differences into account? This issue will be addressed in a future column by a social psychologist who not only has experienced life as a university student in the United States from another country and culture, but who also deals with these issues on a daily basis as an advisor to community college students from outside of the United States.