What is happiness? This is a question I asked myself several times during and after our study trip to China. Whether we were visiting ancient temples in Beijing or the world’s fourth largest statue Guan Yin of the South Sea of Sanya, lighting incense sticks for prayers I always found myself somehow silently wishing for happiness. Besides this, we had the opportunity to visit the End of the Earth, the Edge of the Sky and the Rim of the Sea – a meaningful spot at the Southern coast of Hainan where couples go to have a very happy married life. To me, coming from the West, aspects of happiness are love, self-fulfillment and health, for example. But what does happiness mean to the many others, mainly Chinese, who were internally praying around me?
One’s perception of happiness basically goes back to whether one grew up in an individualistic or collectivistic culture. I was born and raised in Germany, a rather individualistic culture and now, I live in the US, which is probably the most individualistic society of all. Therefore, my understanding of happiness is likely to differ from the Chinese understanding of happiness, that is influenced by a collectivistic cultural background. While individualistic cultures mainly focus on the success of the individual, collectivistic cultures put the success and goals of the group above the personal ones: Common good over the individual good. This explains why, for example, the Chinese highly value and respect family. During the trip, internalized values of unity, selflessness and brotherhood were revealed when one of the Chinese students traveling with us decided to stay at the hotel and miss out on sightseeing for one day to keep his sick roommate and friend company. Moreover, we experienced the traditional way of having dinner together with a group ordering and sharing food at a round table. These examples also bring up the concept of interdependency within social relationships in a collectivistic society. In an individualistic culture, however, people strive for their own success and it is almost considered shameful to heavily rely or make oneself dependent on others – people aim to be independent. I personally think it is worth mentioning how these different ways of thinking also affect Eastern and Western perceptions of social relationships: A study found that Chinese students emphasize the merging of two selves to achieve interdependence, while American students emphasize the negotiation of an accommodation between two people who remain independent (Huffington Post, 2015). To me, this finding was a great insight and allowed me to better understand where my own thinking originates in and it made me realize that I should just as well be aware of other understandings of relationships that people have in this world.
Reading about the collectivistic and contemporary Chinese conception of happiness, I found out that it was formed by three different and sometimes even contradictory strains of influence: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. However, in today’s Chinese society these different influences have merged to a folk understanding of happiness. From a Confucian perspective, happiness is a psychological state linked to virtue and reciprocity. Happiness does not lie in personal salvation or material accumulation but it is achieved through self-cultivation and a harmonious family, for example. Ancestor worship is important to mention in this context, as happiness is to achieve the ultimate life goal of striving for the prosperity and vitality of one’s family. To make it short: “Confucians regarded happiness as spiritual, not material; as moral, not circumstantial; as self-identified, not other-judged.” (Lu, 2001, p. 411). In Taoism, happiness is the personal liberation from all human desires through accepting fate calmly and facing things in life with a peaceful mind. Taoism opposes the idea of happiness as a constant self-cultivation. The ultimate goal of Taoism is to achieve anonymity and to merge with nature, to live quiet and isolated (Lu, 2001). Finally, in Buddhism, eternal happiness can only be found in nirvana, not in life on earth. Reaching happiness means to lift up the soul through meditation, for instance.
These three philosophical systems have been synthesized and reinterpreted by ordinary people in contemporary China and merged into a folk theory of happiness (Lu, 2001). According to the results of an exploratory study conducted by Lu (2001), this includes the following definitions of happiness: happiness as a mental state of satisfaction and contentment, happiness as positive feelings, happiness as a harmonious homeostasis, happiness as achievement and hope and happiness as freedom from ill-being. Interesting to note is that another study that compared Chinese and American understandings of happiness found slight differences in these definitions amongst the two groups. For example, few American students referred to harmony or balance in defining happiness while Chinese students characterized happiness as a harmonious homeostasis within the self (Huffington Post, 2015). Moreover, American students’ descriptions of happiness were rather individualistic, focusing on shaping the external world, such as self-autonomy and positive self-evaluations. In contrast to this, Chinese students’ definitions of happiness were communal and focused on shaping the self through self-cultivation, mind-work and positive evaluations of the self by others (Huffington Post, 2015). Finally, the collectivistic background can also be seen in the fact that for Chinese students, personal actions and choices must be governed by morality while American students believed that autonomy is ideally complete personal freedom. Both groups think that happiness is our personal responsibility but self-autonomy was defined differently (Huffington Post, 2015).
My personal conclusion of these valuable insights into Eastern and Western culture is that it is crucial to learn about other cultures and philosophies to increase mutual understanding within any kind of social relationships. I feel that our trip to China was a very enriching experience as it allowed me to develop awareness of and understanding for this ancient and fascinating culture which inspired me to learn from it and critically reflect on my own individualistic way of thinking. However, I feel that both cultures can learn from each other’s mistakes and achievements as they both contain positive as well as negative aspects.
Huffington Post (2015). How Americans and Chinese Think About Happiness Differently. Retrieved January 21, 2017, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-sze/how-americans-and-chinese_b_7642102.html
Lu, L. (2001). Understanding Happiness: A Look into the Chinese Folk Psychology. Journal of Happiness Studies 2(4), p. 407-432. DOI: 10.1023/A:1013944228205