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  • In Pursuit of Happiness: the Cultural Psychological Study of SWB

    Luo Lu

    Department of Psychology, Fu-Jen Catholic University, Taiwan

    MS No.: 04036Received: September 26, 2004; Revised: December 11, 2004; Accepted: December 21, 2004Correspondence Author: Dr. Luo Lu, Department of Psychology, Fu-Jen Catholic University, 510 Chong-Cheng Road,Hsing-Chuang, Taipei Hsien 242, Taiwan, ROC.E-mail

    94 47 2 99-112

    Chinese Journal of Psychology2005, Vol. 47, No. 2, 99-112

    In the present paper, we took the positionthat cultural conceptions of happiness are criti-cal aspects of SWB, which has largely beenneglected thus far. We argued that culture andSWB are most productively analyzed togetheras a dynamic of mutual constitution. Adoptinga cultural psychological approach, we selec-tively reviewed our own indigenous Chineseresearch to illuminate on two evolving themesregarding SWB: (1) conceptions of happiness,and (2) cultural correlates of happiness. Wehave shown that distinct characteristics of theconception of happiness are prevalent inChinese and Western cultures, which can besystematically analyzed, discerned, and mea-sured. The individual-oriented Euro-Americancultural conception of SWB is composed oftwo distinct characteristics: personal account-ability and explicit pursuit. In contrast, thesocial-oriented East Asian cultural conceptionof SWB is composed of two distinct character-istics: role obligations and dialectical balance.

    We have also demonstrated that culturecan impact on the SWB process throughdiverse self conceptions and their consonantbeliefs. These self-regulatory mechanismsthen determine how people think, feel and

    behave in the pursuit of SWB. Finally, we haveunderlined the emerging coexistence of con-trasting cultural rudiments in the case of SWB.

    Keywords: happiness, SWB, cultural psychology

    Happiness or subjective well-being (SWB) hasbeen studied in a large number of disciplines overmany centuries, and has been defined in ethical,theological, political, economic, and psychologicalterms (see Argyle, 2001; Diener, 1984; Veenhoven,1984 for excellent reviews). SWB is now one ofthe most important fields in the emerging positivepsychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihaly, 2000).Over nearly four decades of concerted scientificefforts, certain consensus has been formed amongresearchers. First, happiness is now generallydefined as a predominance of positive over nega-tive affect, and as satisfaction with life as a whole(Argyle, Martin, & Crossland, 1989; Diener,1984). Second, happiness is better conceptualizedas a trait rather than a transient emotional state(Veenhoven, 1994). Third, SWB research has pro-gressed from early social surveys looking forobjective external indicators (Andrews &Withey, 1976; Campbell, 1976) or scale develop-ment (Andrews & Withey, 1976), to attempts at

    This paper is partly based on a keynote speech at the 41 Annual Conference of the Taiwanese Psychological Association (14

    September, 2002, Tainan). The author is grateful for the financial support from the Ministry of Education (89-H-FA01-2-4-2)

    and the National Science Council (NSC93-2752-H-030-001-PAE) on this series of studies.

  • 100 Luo Lu

    explaining psychological mechanisms of happiness(Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999; Headey &Wearing, 1989), largely helped by the advance-ment in multivariate techniques. Finally, the issueof Culture is now moving to the center stage,inspired and provoked by intriguing though puz-zling findings from recent large scale cross-culturalcomparisons (Diener, Diener, & Diener, 1995;Veenhoven, 1995).

    Despite encouraging progresses, one thornyissue remains: that is psychological research astypically practiced tends to be Western in origin,ideas and instrumentation. On the one hand,research based in the West may well be culturebound in significant ways; and where there arecross-cultural studies, they usually involve apply-ing measures derived from Western cultural tradi-tions and comparing results from different nationswithin a priori Western theoretical frameworks.There is a danger, therefore, of twisting non-Western cultures to create psychological equiva-lence (Brislin, Lonner, & Thorndike, 1973). Thisconcern is all the more pressing for the study ofSWB. The word Happiness (xing fu, ) didnot appear in the Chinese language until recently,and Chinese students were less familiar with theconcept of happiness than their American counter-parts (Diener, Suh, Smith, & Shao, 1995). Webelieve that a truly balanced psychology of SWBshould be informed by multiple cultural vantagepoints, Christian, Confucian, Buddhist, Hindu,Muslim and others. Our series of research in thepast decade has focused on contrasting the Chineseagainst the Western (Euro-North American) cultur-al traditions as they construct the conception ofhappiness and consequently constrict its subjectiveexperiences. This paper does not attempt a compre-hensive review of the field, which has been accom-plished by various seasoned scholars; rather wewill use our own indigenous Chinese research toilluminate on two evolving themes regarding SWB:(1) conceptions of happiness, and (2) cultural cor-relates of happiness. Culture will be underlinedthroughout.

    Conceptions of happiness

    With a staunch conviction of scientific meth-ods, Western psychologists have generally left thequestion of what is happiness to philosophers fordebate, and gone on to study the perceived happi-ness and its correlates. As stated at the beginningof this paper, a general consensus to operationalizehappiness in terms of (1) positive affect; (2) lifesatisfaction; and (3) absence of negative affect hasbeen achieved. However, such a working definitionis at most an attempt to identify components/ele-ments of the happiness experience, which unravelslittle about the nature and meanings of happiness,or about beliefs people hold regarding happinessembedded in diverse cultural traditions. Someresearchers have criticized the lack of theoreticalsophistication and psychological depth entailed inthe current mainstream SWB research (Ryff,1989). Although empirical study on happiness haswon its legitimacy and recognition in the main-stream scientific psychology, and flourished overthe past four decades, the accumulation of data hasfailed to push up the level of theoretical construc-tion. Comparing the two extensive reviews 15years apart (Diener, 1984; Diener et al., 1999), wenow know more, with more confidence, about cor-relates of SWB, but we are no closer to the heart ofthis ultimate human experience. The hard questionof what is happiness is unavoidable, if we are tofurther our understandings of human happiness.Breaking this deadlock can also hopefully enableus to direct our scientific efforts more effectively.To this end, we have conducted two series of stud-ies from somewhat different yet complimentaryperspectives: (1) the folk psychological analysis oflay peoples definitions of happiness, and (2) thecultural analysis of views of happiness molded inthe Chinese and Western cultural traditions.

    What is happiness? The folkpsychological approach

    Because meanings and concepts are moldedby culture (Bruner, 1990), it seems necessary to

  • In Pursuit of Happiness 101

    explore what people think about happiness asembedded in the world of meanings and valuesconstrued by a unique cultural tradition. As wementioned earlier that the word Happiness (xingfu, ) did not appear in the Chinese languageuntil recently, Fu () or fu qi () is per-haps the closest equivalent of happiness in Chineseancient thoughts. Fu appeared as early as in boneinscriptions from Shang Dynasty, expressinghuman desires and prayers to a worshiped god(Bauer, 1976). What were these desires andprayers, then? The interpretation of bone inscrip-tions and the excavated luxurious burial gifts pointto a twofold fundamental conception of happinessat the very beginning of the Chinese civilization:blessings from the supernatural, and pleasures inhuman society.

    Later, in the Shang Shu, the word fu wasmore clearly defined in mundane existence toinclude longevity, prosperity, health, peace,virtue, and a comfortable death (Wu, 1991).Another important ancient work, Classic ofritual gave fu yet another amendment. Fu wasfortunate, lucky, smooth and free of obstacles.Roughly, the Chinese peoples conception of hap-piness can be traced back to the early days of civi-lization, and has kept some of its core ideas whileevolving with the great culture. In folk wisdom,Chinese happiness seems to include material abun-dance, physical health, virtuous and peaceful life,and relief from death anxiety.

    The ancient Chinese society was a dual exis-tence. At the top of the societal pyramid, the socialelite presided power and prestige, whose idealswere recorded and carried down through the writ-ings and teachings of great philosophers and schol-ars; the vast majority of working people were ruledaccording to, and preached with those ideals, butconveyed them in folklores as described above.Nonetheless, there is no denying that schools ofgreat philosophy have profoundly shaped theChinese culture and the mentality of Chinese peo-ple for thousands of years. The Tripartite ofConfucianism, Taoism and Buddhism form thebackbone of the orthodox Chinese culture, and

    each has distinct views on human happiness. Oursystematic efforts in exploring the philosophicalthinking of Confucian, Taoism, and Buddhismregarding human happiness have already beendetailed in various journal publications (Lu, 1998;Lu, 2001; Lu, Gilmour, & Kao, 2001; Lu & Shih,1997), however, in the interest of depicting a cul-tural background for our later presentation of theChinese fork psychology on happiness, we willsketch a brief summary below.

    The Confucian happiness is achieved throu