Individual Pursuit of Happiness
All articles are written or co-written Vincent Triola
Happiness is an ambiguous idea that seems to change from culture to culture. For this reason, the traditional concept of happiness has been redefined to make it more universal in nature. The terminology subjective well-being (SWB) has been designated as the replacement of the traditional hedonic view of happiness. In the traditional view of happiness, a person pursues pleasure as the sole means of happiness. This hedonic view is replaced with subjective well-being because the traditional view of happiness overlooks the satisfaction of human experience with the accomplishment of individual pursuits. This is a eudaimonic view of happiness which takes into account the necessity of negative emotions such as fear and pain. According to Baumgardner and Crothers (2009), subjective well-being is defined as, “life satisfaction, the presence of positive affect, and a relative absence of negative affect.”
Within this framework of thought, a form of SWB can be derived which is universal to all people. According to Baumgardner (2009), “Self-determination theory (SDT) states that wellbeing and happiness result from the fulfillment of three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.” Using SDT, basic measures of SWB can be created.
Eudaimonic theories of well-being support a universal basis for SWB by positing basic needs believed to be shared by all human beings (e.g., Ryan & Deci, 2000; Ryff, 1989; Ryff & Keyes, 1995). According to self-determination theory, for example, needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are inherent in all humans (Ryan & Deci 2000).
The need to have a universal basis for measuring SWB is important because without it the concept of SWB would be relativistic and meaningless. As well, there would be no means for accurately measuring the SWB of any group of people. Using SDT as a measure is not without its issues. The use of SDT to determine SWB presents cross-cultural differences that complicate the measuring of wellbeing.
The cross-cultural issues that arise when measuring SWB have to do with the manner in which autonomy, competence, and relatedness are defined and viewed within a culture. For example, Asian cultures are collectivist in nature and this causes their views of SWB to be altered by their perception of themselves with regard to other people.
These societies emphasize an interdependent view of self, in which personal identity is defined relationally, according to connections with others (e.g., family, country, peers, employer, religion), and to the immediate social context (Ryan & Deci 2000).
This cultural difference means that Asians are more likely to answer a question such as “Who are you as a person?” in terms of their relationship with other people, groups, and social roles. “I am a son” or “I am part of this family” would be answers to this type of question in Asian cultures. In these collectivist cultures, individuals define themselves as part of a larger social group rather than as a unique and separate person.
Unlike the Asian cultures, western cultures tend to be individualistic in nature. SWB is then altered by this perception of self. When Americans are asked the same question as to the Asians, they tend to give answers which are driven by an independent concept of self. “I am an athlete.” “I am a businessman.” Neither collectivist nor individualistic cultures are better or worse in regards to SWB, rather they are simply different in the way that SWB is perceived.
Asians define autonomy, competence, and relatedness in terms of conforming to social norms and group structures. Westerners tend to define these attributes of SWB in terms of individualism (standing out) and individual accomplishment. These differing views of SWB affect the way that testing of these cultures can be accomplished. Without changing the manner in which autonomy, competence, and relatedness are associated with the culture through questioning: the tests of SWB would be culturally biased.
One important point that these cultural differences represent is the there is a duality in SWB. The concept is subjective but it is also objective. SWB is defined both by a person’s tastes, desires, and thought processes as well as social norms and mores. These two sides of SWB show that to understand happiness, positive psychologists and laypersons will need to assess a variety of factors that may expand well beyond the current measures.
Baumgardner, S. R. and Crothers, M. .K. (2009). Positive psychology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci (2000). Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being