Wellbeing and Mental Health

What do people mean when they say they're happy? It depends where you live

Attendants stand in a line to pose for a picture outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, during the second plenary meeting of China's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC) March 8, 2010. REUTERS/Jason Lee (CHINA - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY ENVIRONMENT)

Attendants stand in a line to pose for a picture outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Image: REUTERS/Jason Lee

Ana Swanson
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Even though she is still healthy and lively, Mrs. Xie has already prepared the clothes she will be buried in.

An 86-year-old Chinese woman who lives in Dongshan, a city on China's southeastern coast, Xie has an active life, cooking for friends at the local Buddhist temple and joining in the chants there. Yet she has already bought the pants, shirt, shoes, earrings and purse she will wear after she dies, as well as an embroidered yellow pillow for her head. She had a portrait taken that will be displayed at her funeral. And she wrapped the items neatly in a cardboard box to await her death.

For many people in the West, picking out an outfit for your own funeral might seem sad or macabre. But Xie and her friends see it as a cause for reassurance, even celebration.

The video below, in which Xie shows off her burial clothes to her friends and a visiting researcher, Becky Hsu, an assistant professor of sociology at Georgetown, makes the scene feel almost like a party. Xie's friends laugh as she shows off her outfit, congratulate her on getting a deal on her shoes, and scold her for paying too much for fancy earrings.

“It’s a happy thing,” another Chinese woman told Hsu about preparing burial clothes. “Everybody does it. I've had mine for more than 10 years!"


The idea that getting ready for one's funeral can be "a happy thing" shows just how much ideas of happiness can differ from country to country. And it suggests that creating a definition of happiness that holds true for people around the world — a central preoccupation of researchers who study well-being — is not as straightforward as it seems.

Each year, packs of sociologists and survey workers descend on different countries to ask people about their happiness. Surveys such as Pew’s “Ladder of Life”, The World Values Survey and the United Nations' World Happiness Report measure and rank countries in terms of their well-being.

One goal of these surveys is to figure out what ingredients make a happy society. Critics say the measure that most countries use to track progress — gross domestic product — excludes some of the most important parts of human life. GDP doesn't distinguish, for example, between $10 million earned cutting down a rainforest and $10 million earned delivering a new cancer drug. But by paying attention to wellness and happiness, researchers can help guide local and national governments in making policy and adopting the kind of economic development that benefits people most.

Often, these surveys suggest that one of the most important components in happiness is actually wealth. Wealthier countries tend to have higher standards of living, better health care and education, cleaner environments, and more support for families than poorer ones do. The map below, from the U.N.'s World Happiness Report, shows that many of the "happiest" countries, marked in green, are more developed ones.

But wealth is not the only factor: Happiness surveys also try to capture things that common economic metrics overlook, such as a sustainable environment, social progress, personal growth and self-acceptance.

There are big challenges with these surveys, however. Measures of happiness that work equally well in countries all around the world are a Holy Grail for sociologists — sought after, but rarely found. Critics point out that different surveys tend to produce substantially different, and sometimes surprising, results, and they question whether these measures are really capturing happiness, or something else.

“All those pieces that come out ... are like, 'Denmark is the happiest country in the world!' And then another piece comes out that is like, 'Colombia is the happiest country in the world!” Hsu says. "It’s hard to tell what the questions are measuring. A question like, ‘How happy are you, from 1 to 5?’ has a lot of problems.”

Perhaps the biggest problem is how the concept of “happiness” varies in different cultures and languages.

In English, for example, the word "happy" can refer to different things. It might mean a fleeting mood you feel when someone surprises you with a gift or you think of friends and family. Or it could refer to a deeper and less malleable state of satisfaction with your life.

But not all languages refer to happiness the same way. A paper published in the International Journal of Language and Culture notes that the question, "How happy are you?" is difficult to ask in many languages, and couldn't even be properly posed in the English of Shakespeare or Chaucer's time.

For example, Denmark is often ranked among the world's happiest countries — which is something of a mystery to those who have lived among the relatively solemn Danes. Some researchers say the reason is that happiness in Danish is often translated as lykke — a term that can describe a kind of everyday well-being that might be brought on by a nice cup of coffee or a slice of bread with cheese. Others argue that the Danish results might be due in part to a cultural reluctance to burden strangers with their troubles.

Other studies suggests that German, French, Polish and Russian speakers use their equivalent terms for "happy" or "happiness" to refer to a state that's much rarer than English or Danish terms. Still other research argues that, in many languages, the term for "happy" involves a much stronger role for luck or fortune than it does in modern English — closer to what "happy" meant in English several centuries ago.

In Chinese, there are actually several different terms for happiness, each of which have a slightly different meaning.

Hsu and her colleagues are carrying out their own happiness survey in China, with the hope of learning how to better measure happiness not just in China, but in other countries, as well. Their survey focuses on three dimensions of happiness — a good mood, a good life and a sense of whether one’s life has meaning.

Hsu breaks those meanings down in the diagram below, which shows that the English words "happy" and "happiness" encompass just part of those definitions. On the right, she maps one of the Chinese words for happiness, xingfu. Unlike the English translation of happiness, xingfu refers not to a good mood, but a good life, as well as a life with meaning.

In Chinese, each of these three kinds of happiness can actually be translated as a different word, says Hsu — xingfu for a good life, you yiyifor meaning and kuaile for a good mood. By using those three words to ask different questions, researchers may be able to measure dimensions of happiness in Chinese that are often brushed over in English.

Another common problem with happiness surveys, says Hsu, is that they are heavily influenced by Western social science and particularly economics, which has a relatively individualistic and utilitarian view of human life. For Americans especially, the idea of the pursuit of happiness — enshrined in the Declaration of Independence — is often related to personal liberty and individualism.

Western-made surveys tend to ask about the individual person in isolation, and ignore their relationships — even as more and more research todaysuggests that social relationships are one of the most important factors in a person's well-being.

Hsu mentions Pew’s poll, which asks people to picture their position on a 10-step “ladder of life,” in which the bottom step represents the worst possible life for them and the top rung is their best possible life.

“It doesn’t make sense and it’s very individualistic, because you’re alone on this ladder!" Hsu says of the survey. "Where are all your people?"

The Western approach may not necessarily do a good job of capturing happiness in China — and other countries — where the collective concerns of a family often outrank individual ones. So Hsu’s surveys have focused much more on social relations — asking people who they ate dinner with last night, whether it was fun, and who they have given money to in the past month.

The research suggests that family is extremely important to happiness in China — even for young Chinese, whose consumerist tendencies and urban lives look similar to those in the West in other respects.

It might seem strange, but this focus on the family may help explain why Mrs. Xie and her friends have such strong feelings about the clothes they will be buried in. Because many Chinese have a strong sense of connection with their family members, even ancestors who have passed on, they have different and less negative attitudes toward death, Hsu's research suggests. That greater sense of connection between living and dead family members is one reason that preparing for burial can be a “happy” event.

Hsu points out that Chinese families frequently acknowledge and “interact” with the dead through rituals that give people a sense of closer connection to the deceased. For example, families visit the tombs of relatives on holidays to pray, and burn paper money, paper clothes, and other things that the dead person "needs" in the afterlife, as in the video below, which Hsu shot in western China.


So death entails more of a sense of continuity with one’s ancestors and family members — unlike in America, where death is seldom portrayed in such a positive light.

For many people in China, a happy life includes having a good death, and that means being prepared — even your clothes.

“It’s not that death itself is a good thing, it’s that it is the next thing," Hsu says. "So you can have a good one. You can do it well."

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