Get Happy

It’s not a universal pursuit

Photo by V. H. D.
Photo by V. H. D.


In England, the land of my birth, the most profound expression of happiness may be “mustn’t grumble.” Brits look with suspicion upon “the pursuit of happiness” as one of three “unalienable Rights” in the American Declaration of Independence. Better to accept one’s gloomy lot than tempt fate by chasing some elusive joy.

Such aversion to happiness is more common than you might think. According to a review published recently in The Journal of Happiness Studies, individuals in a number of cultures—primarily Eastern—view personal happiness as a state to be avoided or even feared.

Psychologist Mohsen Joshanloo and philosopher Dan Weijers of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, note that in Western culture, “happiness is universally considered to be one of the highest human goods, if not the highest.” Furthermore, Weijers told me in an email, “if many Americans think they live in the land of opportunity and freedom, and that their happiness is largely a result of their own efforts,” then squandering the chance of happiness may be seen as a moral failing, because the unhappy person may be “too lazy or selfish to pursue happiness diligently and honestly.”

In their surveys, however, Joshanloo and Weijers discovered that some people—in Western and Eastern cultures—are wary of happiness because they believe that “Bad things, such as unhappiness, suffering, and death, tend to happen to happy people.” In Russia, notes Stanford psychologist and happiness expert Sonja Lyubomirsky, the expression of happiness “is often perceived as inviting the ire of the devil.” And in many East Asian cultures influenced by Buddhism, the quest for personal happiness may be seen as misguided, because pleasure is focused on the self, leading to such vices as “cruelty, violence, pride, and greed.” These groups tend to prize social harmony above an individual’s happiness and therefore place greater emphasis on good interpersonal relationships.

“In a culture where harmony is the supreme value, achieving this ideal has lots of material and psychological benefits for the person living in that culture,” Joshanloo wrote to me. “Failing to achieve the ideal, on the other hand, is associated with alienation and social exclusion, or even social sanctions.” In fact, one just-published study on the brains of adolescents, by psychologist Eva Telzer of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has shown that helping others brings long-term rewards that override momentary selfish pleasures. She and her colleagues found that teenagers who made “pro-social” decisions to donate money to their families—as opposed to keeping it for themselves—showed significant declines in depressive symptoms over a period of one year.

Personally, I incline toward the view of Eleanor Roosevelt, who famously said that “Happiness is not a goal, it is a byproduct.” And I would rather ditch the stoicism of my birthplace in favor of pursuing that elusive joy: the day I became an American citizen was one of the happiest of my life.

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Josie Glausiusz writes about science and the environment for magazines that include Nature, National Geographic, Scientific American Mind, Discover, New Scientist, and Wired. From 2013 to 2015 she wrote The American Scholar’s “On Science” blog. Her Hakai Magazine article, “Land Divided, Coast United,” won Amnesty International Canada's 2015 Online Media Award.


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