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The topics of gratitude, productivity, happiness, and wellbeing tend to be quite common these days. With the Internet becoming accessible to almost all parts of the world, we are now able to consume cultural products and adopt practices and beliefs from beyond the borders of our countries and cultures.

But this sort of globalization comes with certain problems, too. One of them is losing cultural differentiations and varieties from our perspective when drawing conclusions about humankind and our own satisfaction with life.

Today, we want to talk about a few limitations of the science of happiness that people rarely ever discuss: cultural differences.

Does One Size Fit All?

Weird Participants

Social sciences and research have mostly been produced in western countries. The concepts of gratitude, happiness, wellbeing, productivity, or mindfulness are all derivatives of Western social science. But once a new paper gets published, we tend to take the results as applicable to humankind everywhere.

However, the topic of cultural differences has grown in popularity over the past couple of years, and researchers are now talking more and more about WEIRD participants. This playful term refers to the fact that a number of studies whose findings we tend to generalize and apply to humans as a whole actually contain samples from a fairly homogenous group. Namely, psychology study participants are often:

  • Western;
  • Educated;
  • From Industrialized areas;
  • From Democratic countries.

This has huge implications on our understanding of human behavior and how applicable it is in the rest of the world. For example, people in different cultures express their gratitude differently. Just to illustrate, giving open thanks in India may be seen as rude or strange as opposed to how it’s seen in Western countries.

These and similar kinds of differences stem from the various ways communities define certain concepts. Happiness, gratitude, productivity, or wellbeing don’t necessarily mean the same thing for someone living in Cuba and someone living in the USA.

So, it seems like one size doesn’t really fit all. In fact, there are so many participants that are not WEIRD, and the results obtained on their lives and habits are rarely given as generalizations to WEIRD participants. How weird is that?

Cultural Differences And Social Science

In one of the biggest attempts to test for cultural universality in human psychology, psychologists discovered that there are five personality traits common for all people regardless of where they live: neuroticism, extraversion, consciousness, openness, and cooperativeness.

This research proved cultural universalities among people. However, just like there are traits specific to each culture––or differences in average values on these five traits between distinct cultures––there are also differences in how people live their lives, what impacts their happiness the most, and how they conceptualize their wellbeing.

For example, by using Gallup World Poll, OECD generated a report in 2015 showing that life circumstances or culture do play a big role in varying perceptions of our wellbeing, but that personal (non-cultural factors) are nonetheless important.

Another research from 2018 showed that Swedes and Chinese both highly rank family as the main domain of their wellbeing and happiness in life, but for the Chinese, family life was followed by good health, while for the Swedes, it was friends.

A recently published comprehensive study based on the World Values Survey revealed that certain staple concepts that became so common in the English-speaking, Western communities can actually be defined in a completely different way in other parts of the world.

And contrary to popular (western) belief, this isn’t due to “underdevelopment,” “lack of economic growth,” or some other reasons that would imply that other cultures are less progressive than western-culture countries are. It’s simply due to differences in values, mindsets, lifestyles, rules, history, and, of course, culture.

The cookie-cutter principle is simply invalid because it gives privilege to the experiences of upper-class western people, while neglecting and overlooking the background of people from other parts of the world.

Now, we will give you some insights from the most comprehensive study we’ve encountered about world values and happiness.

The World Values Survey: Happiness, Culture, and Values

With hindsight and in the name of “better late than never,” researchers, sociologists, and cultural anthropologists are trying to bring these implications into the spotlight. One prominent example of their efforts is the World Values Survey, an initiative that strives to study changing values, taking into account different cultures and demographics.

The World Values Survey aims to get a good representation of study participants that are likely to have different values by dividing the world into regions:

  1. Communist countries like China or Vietnam;
  2. Ex-communist countries and regions like Eastern Europe and Russia;
  3. Latin American countries;
  4. Western countries (these are not strictly in the geographical west, the UK and Australia also fall into this category, as well as Germany, Spain, and most of the EU).
  5. Asian countries: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, etc.

Now, if you’ve traveled to at least two countries from any two different categories, you may have noticed significant differences in the lifestyles of their residents. For example, what would be considered rude in Germany (burping at the table) would be considered polite in China.

Likewise, the way people socialize or communicate with each other, their take on what it means to be a good friend, or their ideas on how to be happy can wildly differ from one culture to another.

That’s why researchers use these regions to get a broad idea of what people from different parts of the world think about a variety of topics and gain an insight into their traditional family values, materialistic values, the values of friendship and leisure, political values, religious values, and prosocial values. They ask them about their specific stances on every value, but also how important each of these values is to them. And, what is perhaps most important, they ask them about their overall life satisfaction.

The Results: Universal vs. Variable Values

The results have revealed an interesting trend: values can vary in their level of universality. Some are simply more universally important for people’s overall satisfaction in their lives than others.

For example, according to the survey, prosociality, family values, friendship and leisure were equally important for life satisfaction in all five regions, meaning that these values are more universally important. Subsequently, those people who tend to prioritize them also tend to be more satisfied with their lives in all five regions, respectively.

However, the other values showed some variations in trends depending on the region. Different regions uphold different values depending on the local system’s norms that dictate the society’s needs.

Let’s illustrate. While traditionally affluent Western countries are now learning that money and material goods do not equal happiness and that they might even backfire on you and make you unhappy, Eastern Europeans, Latin Americans, and people from communist countries would strongly disagree––they do find material well-being equal to happiness.

Politically-minded people in communist countries live happier lives than their western counterparts. Why? Because their values are in line with the expectations set by the communist system, such as political and social participation and activism, whereas cultural norms in western societies largely revolve around personal well-being.

However, political-minded people in post-communist countries seem to have ended up quite unhappy, likely because they lived through the disintegration of their ideals and values. They are now disillusioned and need to recover and rebuild their values, and this phenomenon has profoundly influenced their life satisfaction.

On the other hand, people who highly value religion seem to be the most satisfied in the West, but also in Latin America and Asian countries, as opposed to people living in communist and post-communist societies. This is due to the fact that the second category of countries strongly oppose any religious practice, while the former are liberal about it.

How Can We Be so Different and so Similar at the Same Time?

what values make us happy

How can we, humans, be so similar, yet so different? Why are some values universal to all people regardless of their circumstances in life, and others not as much?

The explanation behind the universality of prosociality, family values, and friendship/leisure time is that these are aspects of human nature that go beyond current cultures. They have become ingrained in the human psyche because they had evolutionary benefits throughout our development as a species and society, and therefore they still positively influence our quality of life.

However, the differences may occur due to other deeply rooted needs, such as the need to belong. If our personal values align with those of the social system we’re part of, we will be satisfied, because we would be living in a system to which we belong. This is why people from Eastern Europe who think about politics too much are not satisfied: politics used to be very important to them, and their values were aligned. Then, the system changed, and now they are forced to change their values in order to feel like they belong again.

The implication is that the values that make us happy are not as universal as we’d think. These findings shed a completely different light on reading the Western psychological research. If we want to become a more inclusive world, we need to start reading science differently and work in science differently.

One size fits all or the cookie-cutter principle is inapplicable to humans, as shown time and time again. It only works on cookies.

What Can I Do About My Own Happiness?

While the cultural differences in what makes us happy are real, and the facts from this article may be resonating with how you feel, it is also possible that certain narratives from your culture do not apply to you.

Knowing why you are not as excited about productivity for example, in the terms in which Western research literature defines it, can help you discover what productivity actually means to you, and how it can apply to you.

Furthermore, personal context can very often outdo cultural values. That’s why it’s important not to lose the universal values for happiness out of sight.

Here are a few things you can think about applying to your practice to keep working on your happiness while staying true to yourself.

Personal Life Is as Valuable as Professional Life

There are certain environments, in which professional development is valued as the most important aspect of an individual’s life, while personal life falls somewhere behind. This eventually leads to burnout and a loss of boundaries between what we do and who we are.

Regardless of where you live and what you do, you should place an equal value on what makes you happy as a person and what pushes you towards career progress. Focusing on just one of these two will result in you losing an important part of your identity and being unhappy. It’s time to redefine perfectionism and success.

Try Different Things

Perhaps you’ve read how positive affirmations can impact your mood in a good way, and open up new horizons for your personal development. You’ve been practicing them by the book, but you’re experiencing no change.

While there is the possibility that positive affirmations are simply not your thing, there’s also the possibility that you’re not applying them to the aspects of your life and identity that are truly important to you.

Give yourself some time to think about which aspects of you really need this positive support and redirect your affirmations.The same thing goes for all other happiness practices. They will work if you adapt them to your personal context and values. Don’t know where to start? Start by discovering who you truly are.

Remember the Basics

There are certain things in this world that are simple but can make us, humans, really happy. If things have gotten overly complicated, sometimes, it’s good to go back to the basics and start working on your happiness from there.

Two important things here are having a close connection and relationships (with friends, partner, or family member) and doing one thing each day that makes you happy (regardless of how “basic”, small, or simple it may seem), such as taking a walk, eating your favorite chocolate, taking photos, dancing, committing time to yourself, and practicing mindfulness in your own way.

Using your favorite activity as the pillar, it’s much easier to further build your practice of happiness.

It is of immeasurable importance to acknowledge cultural differences in values and happiness. However, while there are some cultural universalities, there are also individual differences we need to rely on in shaping our happiness.

Where you live may have a lot to do with how you feel and what you value the most. But who you are as a person has much more to do in you taking full ownership of your life and being happy on your own terms.

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