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Secrets of Happiness

28 June 2001 7:00 pm
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Smile. European Americans like to do well while having fun, says happiness researcher Ed Diener.

People from cultures that emphasize feeling good apparently enjoy life more than do those from cultures that put a premium on other values, such as achievement. So says happiness researcher Ed Diener, who has found that Asians and Asian Americans tend to fall to the bottom of the happiness heap in surveys of people from different nations and ethnic groups.

"Happy are the Latin cultures, less so the Pacific Rim cultures," according to Diener, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Surveys have consistently found that people from such countries as Chile report high levels of well-being, he says, while the Japanese are glummer than their wealth might predict. In a talk at the American Psychological Society meeting in Toronto on 15 June, Diener reported on fresh data gathered from five groups of college students: Japanese, Indian, Hispanic American, Asian American, and European American. Students gave not only overall happiness ratings but reported subjective states in spot checks via hand-held computers. The Hispanics came out on top, the Japanese and Asian Americans at the bottom.

The research confirms, says Diener, that there are big cultural effects on how people assess and value emotions. U.S. and Latin Americans generally see the positive side of life, Diener says, while Japanese and Chinese are more likely both to see the glass half-empty and to assign much less value to concepts related to self-fulfillment.

Psychologist Shigehiro Oishi of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, who works with Diener, says he's done a (yet unpublished) study that comes to similar conclusions. In one exercise, Asian and European Americans were asked to perform a basketball-playing task. Later, given a choice between playing another round of basketball or trying their hand at darts, the Caucasians who did well at basketball chose to play again, whereas those who did poorly switched to darts. The Asian Americans, on the other hand, stuck with basketball if they had done poorly the first time, but if they had done well, they moved on to darts. "Overcoming weaknesses and self-improvement" were all-important to the Asians, says Oishi, while European Americans want to do well and have fun.

Related sites

Ed Diener's home page
The Secret Society of Happy People, which encourages the "expression of happiness"

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