S. and S.E. Asia
While there are some universal societal factors, such as democratic governance, human rights, and longevity, which are related to SWB across nations (Diener et al. 1995a), there are also cross-national similarities in terms of personality characteristics and social bonds that are associated with happiness. For instance, Lucas et al. (2000) found that extroversion was related to positive feelings in all 39 nations examined. Kuppens et al. (2008) also found that, across nations, positive emotions were more strongly associated with life satisfaction than was the absence of negative emotions. Fulmer et al. (2010) found that there is a congruity effect such that people who have personality characteristics that match the dominant traits in that cultures tend to report higher levels of well-being.
In terms of social resources, longitudinal studies and studies of large representative samples reveal that married people are, on average, happier than non-married people (Glenn 1975; Lee et al. 1991; Lucas et al. 2003). This correlation holds true across nations. Diener et al. (2000) found that being married was associated with high SWB almost universally across cultures, although there were some cultural differences, such as lesser negative affect among divorced persons in collectivist cultures. Therefore, strong social bonds such as those provided by supportive marriages seem to be universally beneficial to SWB, along with extraversion and positive feelings. However, the issue of reverse causality—high well-being leading to marriage better relationships and extraversion—cannot be ruled out.
Small Homogeneous Groups
Even when examining small cultural units, some universal causes of happiness emerge. In a study of homeless individuals from Calcutta in India, and from both California and Oregon, Biswas-Diener and Diener (2006) found that all three groups reported high levels of negative affect and low satisfaction with material resources, such as income and housing. Likewise, all three groups reported similar levels of high satisfaction with domains related to the self (e.g., morality, intelligence, and physical appearance), which indicates the resiliency of self-appraisal despite the negative effects of poverty. In each locale, homelessness was predictably associated with lowered well-being, which suggests that having one’s basic needs unmet is a strong predictor of lowered life satisfaction around the globe. These results were replicated in another Calcutta study that surveyed those living in slum housing, sex workers, and pavement dwellers and found that life satisfaction decreased incrementally as the fulfillment of basic needs diminished (Biswas-Diener and Diener 2001). Specifically, pavement dwellers (i.e., those who live without housing) had much lower life satisfaction than both sex workers and those living in the slums. Thus, even among impoverished groups, the fulfillment of a basic need such as housing can drastically affect the way individuals evaluate their lives. Thus, satisfaction with material resources is strongly linked to overall life satisfaction across diverse groups.
Similarly, strong social relationships have been shown to universally aid well-being. Homeless groups in Calcutta showed greater satisfaction with social relationships than did homeless groups in the United States. Moreover, sharing living quarters with others was also related to increased life satisfaction in Calcutta, whereas homeless respondents in the United States commonly showed a lack of trust in other homeless people around them (Biswas-Diener and Diener 2006). Interestingly, respondents in Calcutta also reported higher satisfaction with material domains and income, despite having better access to food, clean water, medical care, employment, and adequate shelter available to them in the two US locations (Biswas-Diener and Diener 2006). Although respondents in India may display higher levels of satisfaction because the country, in general, shows much more sympathy and less social stigma for the poor, social support seems to play a key role in the differences between the homeless groups surveyed. Because homelessness in Calcutta is associated less with pathology or personal fault and more with economic conditions, the homeless in Calcutta tend to stay close to their family units, whereas their counterparts in the United States are often estranged from relatives, children, and spouses. In this way, the social support provided to the Indian homeless may be the reason why they show levels of life satisfaction not only higher than their American counterpart but which fall in the positive range.
Cultural Differences in the Causes of Well-Being
Although there are similarities across cultures in terms of the causes of well-being, cultural differences also exist. A few of the areas where there are substantial differences are in the way certain emotions are valued across cultures, in how social approval affects judgments of life satisfaction, and in the perceived importance of individual achievement versus communal harmony. For example, the value of self-esteem to SWB is moderated by individualism, as indicated by the fact that self-esteem is a strong predictor of life satisfaction in individualistic cultures, but not in collectivist cultures (Diener and Diener 1995). Similarly, satisfaction with one’s freedom was more strongly associated with life satisfaction in individualistic cultures than in collectivistic cultures (Oishi et al. 1999).
In the area of emotion, Suh et al. (1998) found that emotional experiences were more strongly associated with life satisfaction in individualistic cultures than in collectivistic cultures. Suh et al. (2008) extended these findings by using a priming procedure. Specifically, American and Korean participants in their study were primed either with the concepts associated with individualism or collectivism before making their life satisfaction judgments. When participants were primed with individualism, their life satisfaction judgments were based primarily on their own emotional experiences. When they were primed with collectivism, however, their life satisfaction judgments were more strongly influenced by social appraisals (how parents and friends viewed participants’ lives) than their own emotional experiences. These findings suggest that many cultural differences are not absolute but depend on the focus of attention and salience of information at the time of reporting (see Oyserman and Lee 2008 for review). Because people are more likely to attend to information that is seen as important in their culture, differences in the correlates of life satisfaction arise because of the differential accessibility of relevant information (Oishi et al. 2000).
We could not locate previously published findings on regional differences in the patterns associated with well-being. Thus, we analyzed Wave 3 of the Gallup World Poll for well-being of marital status groups across a few regions of the world. Table 8.2 shows the life evaluation scores (0–10 scale) and positive feelings scores (0–1.0 scale) for each region.
Life satisfaction and positive feelings of marital status groups in four world regions
Arab Middle East
Several important conclusions emerge from our examination of the table. First, the patterns are different for the two types of well-being. These pattern differences point to the absolute necessity of measuring different types of well-being in cross-cultural research and of not making blanket statements about happiness. For instance, widows in the Middle East are relatively high in life evaluations but very low in positive feelings. Across marital groups, Northern Europe is clearly highest in life evaluations, but South America is highest in positive feelings.
In terms of specific marital categories, widows are the worst off in life evaluation in two of the regions, but the divorced are lowest in the two other regions. In terms of positive feelings, widows are the worst off in all regions, but this deficit is most dramatic in the Middle East, where widows are also relatively highly in life evaluation. In every region, the married are highest in positive feelings, but singles score highest on life evaluations in two other regions. The finding that unmarried individuals are relatively happy (DePaulo and Morris 2005) replicates across regions and measures, as does the finding that divorced individuals are low in well-being. At the same time, the findings reveal that the relative standing of marital groups can differ depending on cultural region as well as type of well-being. Thus, we need to take a more careful look at where and why patterns replicate. Clearly, the processes leading to life evaluation versus positive feelings are distinct.
As stated above, Lucas et al. (2000) showed that the association between positive affect and extraversion was similar across 39 nations. Schimmack et al. (2002b) replicated this finding, showing that the latent link between extraversion and hedonic balance (PA–NA) was positive and the link between neuroticism and hedonic balance was negative in all five nations examined, namely, the United States, Germany, Mexico, Japan, and Ghana. Interestingly, however, consistent with Suh et al. (1998), the latent association between hedonic balance and life satisfaction was larger among Americans and Germans than among Mexicans, Japanese, and Ghanaians.
When specific types of pleasant emotions were examined, several cross-national differences also emerged. For instance, happiness was strongly associated with interpersonally disengaging positive emotions (e.g., pride) among Americans, whereas it was strongly associated with interpersonally engaging positive emotions among Japanese (e.g., fureai, Kitayama et al. 2000, 2006). Similarly, pride loaded on the positive mood factor along with other positive emotions among European-Americans and Hispanic Americans, whereas it loaded on both positive and negative moods among Asian-Americans, Japanese, and Indians (Scollon et al. 2005). More recently, Tsai and colleagues found that the ideal positive emotion entailed high activation (e.g., excitement) among Americans, whereas it entailed low activation (e.g., calm, peaceful) among Chinese (Tsai et al. 2007a, b).
In a similar vein, relationship harmony was more strongly associated with life satisfaction in Hong Kong than in the United States (Kwan et al. 1997). Likewise, among Japanese and Filipinos, social support had a direct effect on subjective well-being above and beyond self-esteem, whereas social support did not predict subjective well-being among Americans beyond self-esteem (Uchida et al. 2008). Namely, social support was associated with subjective well-being among Americans to the extent that it was associated with self-esteem.
There are also cross-national differences in motivational processes involving subjective well-being. For instance, Americans are more motivated to view themselves as consistent across different roles and situations than Koreans (Suh 2002). Furthermore, self-concept consistency was more strongly associated with life satisfaction in the United States than in Korea. There are cross-national differences in terms of the relation between goal attainment and subjective well-being. For example, Japanese college students who were pursuing their goals to make their family and friends happy became more satisfied with their lives over time as they achieved their goals than did those Japanese who were not pursuing their goals to make their family and friends happy (Oishi and Diener 2001). In contrast, American college students who were pursuing their goals for themselves became more satisfied with their lives over time as they achieved their goals than did other Americans who were not pursuing their goals for themselves. Likewise, among Americans, pursuing goals with an avoidant mindset was negatively associated with life satisfaction, whereas it was not negatively associated with life satisfaction among Koreans and Russians, who view avoiding negative evaluations as important (Elliot et al. 2001).
Other studies have shown cross-national differences in the role of specific situations or life events in subjective well-being. For instance, Oishi et al. (2004) conducted a cross-national experience-sampling study in which participants were beeped at random moments and asked to record the situations they were in, and their moods, for 1 week. For instance, they found that both Americans and Japanese were happier when they were with friends and their romantic partners than when they were alone. However, this effect of friend and romantic partner, respectively, was significantly stronger among Japanese than among Americans. In the same study, they found that Indians felt more negative emotions when they were with strangers than they were alone. American participants did not feel any more negative emotions when they were with strangers than when they were alone. Overall, Japanese and Indian negative affective experiences varied, to a greater degree, across different interpersonal contexts than did Americans’. In another study, Oishi et al. (2007) conducted a 3-week daily diary study in the United States, Korea, and Japan, in which participants were asked to record their daily life events and well-being. On average, American participants experienced more positive events per day than Koreans and Japanese. Interestingly, it took Americans about two positive daily events to mitigate the effect of one negative event on their daily satisfaction. In contrast, it took about one positive event to counteract the effect of one negative event among Japanese and Koreans. Because American participants experienced more positive events (e.g., compliments) than Koreans and Japanese in general, the value of a positive event among Americans was lower than among Koreans and Japanese (see Diener et al. 2003; Tov and Diener 2007 for more comprehensive review on cross-national differences in well-being).
Small Homogeneous Groups
Biswas-Diener et al. (2005) found that the Kenyan Maasai, the US Amish, and the Greenlandic Inughuit all reported above-average levels of life satisfaction, domain satisfaction, and affect balance. However, the Amish reported lower satisfaction with self-related domains, whereas the Maasai and Inughuit reported lower satisfaction with material domains. While all three groups reported high satisfaction with social domains, the Maasai were the only group that reported frequently feeling substantial pride. Thus, subjective well-being may differ in a more intricate pattern, even when the overall level is similar across groups.
More recently, Cox (2009) examined the subjective well-being of sex workers, dump dwellers, urban poor, rural peasants, and university students in Nicaragua. Among urban poor, income was significantly positively associated with global life satisfaction. In contrast, however, among sex workers, dump dwellers, rural poor, and university students, income was unrelated to global life satisfaction. One important issue here is the measurement of material wealth or resources among these groups. While income may not affect well-being in cultures such as the Maasai, where money is hardly used, the ownership of cattle, for instance—which is an important material asset—is correlated with life satisfaction.
Cultural Universals in the Structure of Well-Being
Although there has been debate regarding the universality of emotions, research shows that while individual emotions and the situations that cause them may differ from culture to culture, positive and negative affect can be validly assessed across individualistic and collectivistic cultures. A number of studies show that countries around the world use emotion words that cluster into the two main categories of positive or negative emotions. Positive and negative affect clusters emerged from studies examining emotion words in Japan (Watson et al. 1984), as well as in the United States, Italy, and China (Shaver et al. 1992). These studies provide evidence that positive and negative feelings are perceived across nations and that emotions, such as joy, anger, and sadness, appear to be universally experienced as positive or negative.
In addition to positive and negative affect, there is also support for the similarity of life satisfaction across cultural dimensions. Vittersø et al. (2002) found that a one-factor model of the Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS; Diener et al. 1985) fit reported life satisfaction in 41 nations. This study not only suggests that the SWLS measures a single construct but also suggests that cultures around the world have similar notions of life satisfaction regardless of what conditions they think contribute to it.
Diener et al. (2004) studied the frequency of 12 emotions and found that they resulted in positive and negative clusters for all seven regions of the world, including Africa, Latin America, East Asia, Southeast Asia, West Asia, Eastern Europe, and Western Europe. Importantly, in virtually all regions, certain emotions were consistently placed into the positive or negative clusters: positive emotions included pleasant, cheerful, and happy, while negative emotions included unpleasant, sad, and angry.
Similarly, Tay et al. found that across six cultural–political regions of the world, emotions fell along a positive–negative valence continuum. Words such as cheerful, pleasant, happy, and love were viewed as positive in all regions, and words such as sad, worry, unpleasant, and anger were seen as negative in all regions.
Nation-level studies have provided much support for the validity of measuring positive and negative affect across cultures. Based on 9,300 respondents from 48 nations, Kuppens et al. (2006) concluded that there are two broad universal affect factors—pleasant and unpleasant feelings—that characterize people across the globe. In addition, Scollon et al. (2004) found that positive feelings and negative feelings each formed similar clusters across nations. In this study, it is noteworthy that emotions for which there are no equivalent English-language emotions, which they called indigenous emotions, also clustered as would be expected in the pleasant or unpleasant clusters. Moreover, these results also extend to the within-person level analysis, as evident by Scollon et al. (2005) finding that positive and negative emotions formed separate and strong factors in all of the five cultures they studied. In other words, the feelings of the same valence tend to be experienced together.
Small Homogeneous Groups
Russell (1983) asked Indians from the Gujarat region of India (who spoke Gujarati only) to sort 28 emotion terms in terms of similarity and dissimilarity. Much like the two-dimensional structure of emotions in English, the similarity judgments of emotions in Gujarati resulted in the two-dimensional circumplex of emotion with the pleasant/unpleasant and arousal as the major dimensions.
Cultural Differences in the Structure of Well-Being
Despite cultural universals, interesting structural differences in SWB originate from cultural–emotional norms, which play an important role in the frequency of reported emotions, and thus provide insight into the measurement of well-being across the globe. Emotions which conflict with societal norms may be deemphasized and, consequently, experienced less frequently. This, in turn, may explain why some cultures report certain emotions as negative which are normally viewed as positive in the majority of nations.
Cultural dimensions may affect the way the separate components of SWB are related to each other. Kuppens et al. (2008) found that individualism moderated the association of negative emotions with life satisfaction, with people in individualistic nations being more adversely affected by unpleasant feelings. In cultures that value self-expression, positive feelings had a stronger relation with life satisfaction.
Kuppens et al. (2006) found that beyond the individual pleasant and unpleasant factors that strongly describe people’s feelings across cultures, there were two nation-level factors that described less, but non-negligible, amounts of variance in the reports of feelings: positivity and interpersonal emotions. One nation factor consisted of feelings related to other people rather to than unpleasant feelings. This factor included high loadings on guilt, shame, gratitude, and jealousy. The positive-nation factor was related to the life satisfaction of nations and to the cultural appropriateness of expressing positive emotions. Importantly, the interpersonal dimension was inversely related to the individualism of nations, suggesting that in collectivistic nations, people pay more attention to interpersonal feelings. This attention to the collective may be explained by Kitayama et al. (2009) finding that individualistic cultures tend to favor emotions associated with independence, whereas collectivistic cultures tend to favor emotions associated with interdependence.
Schimmack et al. (2002a) found that pleasant and unpleasant emotions were inversely correlated in many sociocultural regions (e.g., Europe, Latin America). However, pleasant and unpleasant emotions were not inversely related in the East Asian region. Tay et al. (2011) used latent class analysis to examine the structure of affect in persons in greater detail. Using the Gallup World Poll, they did find a class with low levels of positive affect and high levels of several types of positive affect. Conversely, they found another class with moderate levels of positive affect and relatively low level of negative affect but also high stress. These two classes represent the positive–negative dimension that characterized most structural work on the emotions, with the exception of stress, which went with the positive emotions for the second latent class. However, there was also a class reporting relatively high negative and positive emotions found frequently in Latin America. Finally, there was a class with relatively light positive emotions, except pride, and very low levels of sadness and worry. Thus, a valence dimension was somewhat universal across the globe, but the patterns were, in fact, more intricate than values alone would suggest.