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Not Everyone Wants to Be Happy

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Americans all want to be happy but most of them can't even tell you what happiness is.

Also, Americans all want to go to heaven but none of them want to die.

But actually it's a good philosophical question if happiness is personal or societal harmony.

These values translate to different weights placed on personal happiness.  In one paper, Oishi and his colleagues examined the definition of happiness in dictionaries from 30 nations, and found that internal inner feelings of pleasure defined happiness in Western cultures, more so than East Asian cultures.  Instead, East Asians cultures define happiness more in line with social harmony, and it is associated with good luck and fortune. Indeed, when researchers measure feelings of positive affect or pleasure, they go hand in hand with enhanced feelings of happiness by North America individuals but not by East Asian individuals. Instead, social factors - such as adapting to social norms or fulfilling relational obligations – were associated with enhanced feelings of happiness in East Asia.  

Put differently, personal happiness can become aversive, particularly when it comes at cost to the social harmony or moral obligations held in high esteem by collectivistic cultures. 

Should Americans rethink their love affair with personal happiness in light of this research?   We know that happiness boasts a long list of advantages, from broadening one’s thinking skills to improving physical and mental health. But prioritizing personal happiness leads to a number of problems, like focusing too much on the self. Perhaps we need a more balanced approach to happiness in American culture. Personal happiness is beneficial in some contexts, a limitation in others—good in moderation, but harmful in excess.  In some moments, we may need and benefit from feeling good, but in other moments, we might be better served anchoring on balanced, meaningful life focused on others.  Happiness, in this light, is not the proverbial goal to chase, but a (happy) outcome of a life well lived.

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