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Pursuit of Happiness: We’re Not Trying Too Hard—We’re Just Not Trying the Right Things

October 22, 2015
by Blake Edgar
Woman appearing to be quite happy

It’s affirmed in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence as an unalienable right: the pursuit of happiness. No wonder that Americans hold happiness in high regard; it’s practically a birthright. 

“Happiness is a goal of mine, but it also happens to be my day job,” says Brett Ford, who’s pursuing her Ph.D. in psychology at UC Berkeley’s Emotion and Emotion Regulation Lab. “I’m obsessed with trying to understand why other people are obsessed with happiness.” Some of her earlier research suggests, perversely, that obsessing about happiness often makes people more melancholy and lonely—and could even increase the risk of depression and bipolar disorder.

In fact, several studies suggest that wanting to be happy may be counterproductive for the health of Americans. But does the same paradox exist elsewhere?

Happiness appears to be a universally valued emotion. But Ford and her colleagues have discovered that happiness means different things in different cultures—variances that influence how aggressively people pursue happiness, and whether they’re likely to achieve that pursuit.

In a new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Ford, her doctoral advisor Iris Mauss and 10 co-authors surveyed hundreds undergraduate students in four regions—the United States, Germany, Russia, and East Asia. Their conclusion: an individual’s culture can help predict whether seeking happiness is more likely to raise or lower self-esteem and well-being.

father and son playing with bubbles

Previous studies typically sampled U.S. college students or compared Americans with one other culture. But Ford’s new study focused on cultures with two different types of core values: Those presumed to emphasize individual independence (Americans and Germans) versus those that value social interdependence (Japanese, Taiwanese and Russians).

The individualists tend to pursue pleasure-seeking—and often materialistic—paths to happiness, such as splurging on a fast car or collecting fine wines. Think of it as an inward approach focused on feeling good. On the flip-side, the collectivists tend to pursue happiness in the company of others such as relaxing with family and friends or through selfless acts such as helping to feed the hungry. In other words, an outward approach focused on doing good.

In the study, the students responded to a 7-point scale Mauss created to measure how motivated they were to seek happiness, and how strongly they agree or disagree with such statements as “How happy I am at any given moment says a lot about how worthwhile my life is” or “I am concerned about my happiness even when I feel happy.” Other scales assessed the extent to which they defined happiness based on social engagement, and their well-being.

Translating terms was vital. For instance, the Russian language contains two common words for happiness—one pertaining to day-to-day feelings of joy and another  for the state of complete satisfaction. Whereas, says Ford, “In English, there’s just one ambiguous word we use to cover it all.”

Among American students, researchers found an interesting correlation: Those more driven to attain happiness had a lower sense of well-being. They also were less likely to connect their desire for happiness to any social engagement, or to helping others. But the Americans who did possess a more socially-engaged definition of happiness also had a greater sense of well-being.

Parents and kids hugging

The German sample fell in the middle, suggesting their culture may contain both individualistic and collectivistic characteristics. As for the collectivist Russians and East Asians, the more driven they were to be happy, the more likely they were to pursue it in socially engaged ways—and to succeed.

“It’s a great contribution to the study of happiness to show that in some cultural contexts, pursuing happiness is a positive thing to do,” says Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. She sees the new study as part of an emerging reassessment of the idea that pursuing happiness provokes negative emotions. The study’s results also align with the perspective that Simon-Thomas emphasizes in the popular online class she began co-teaching last year on the Science of Happiness. “Happiness is not about achievement, pleasure, and the moments of success in life,” she says. “It has much more to do with your ability to connect with others.”

Simon-Thomas, who has not collaborated on research with Ford, says that the cross-cultural study’s statistical correlations are strong despite having a limited number of subjects. Still, she would welcome additional data from larger, more randomly selected samples, and from a broader range of age and economic status. Ford and her colleagues agree.

There’s also historical evidence that Americans may be misinterpreting that guarantee in the Declaration of Independence. Carol V. Hamilton—who held an English Ph.D. from Cal and was long fascinated by the life of her “distant relative” Alexander—wrote persuasively that Declaration author Thomas Jefferson was invoking “Greek and Roman philosophical tradition in which happiness is bound up with the civic virtues of courage, moderation, and justice….The pursuit of happiness, therefore, is not merely a matter of achieving individual pleasure. That is why Alexander Hamilton and other founders referred to ‘social happiness.’ ”

For now, here’s some take-home advice.

“Social engagement and connection really do work as paths to happiness,” says Ford. “It’s possible that regardless of where you’re from, viewing happiness as something that is socially oriented will be good for you.”

Simon-Thomas is even more succinct: “Having friends doesn’t guarantee you happiness,” she says, “but you can’t have it without them.”

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