⚡️ Is Being Happy Wrong?
Summer is gone in Budapest, the heat was fighting back for a week, but eventually the weather settled for an autumn coolness. I am running late evenings and early mornings and I feel that the air is different - less humid, more cool and breezy.
You are reading Caesura, a weekly column-slash-newsletter by me - Adil, the columnist. Thanks for subscribing, by the way.
Let’s get to it.
👩🏽🤝👨🏻 Between Us
When you are an expat living in a foreign country, two things are must in your toolkit:
emotional intelligence — to know, understand and love yourself; and
cultural intelligence — to interpret and understand unfamiliar behavior of people coming from different cultures.
Batja Mesquita, a professor of psychology at the University of Leuven (Belgium), in her book “Between Us: How Cultures Create Emotions” adds the third item: cultural differences in emotions.
Mesquita argues that different cultures have different emotions and there are no such things as “universal” emotions. The book challenges a common notion of emotions as biologically given inner states of our minds — something that originates deep within us. Instead, Mesquita argues emotions are socially constructed notions, something that we learn from our parents and cultures.
To show this, Mesquita proposes two models of emotions: MINE and OURS.
MINE stands for emotions INside the person, and Essentialists, meaning that emotions have the same properties in any context;
OURS describes emotions that originate OUTside the person, Relational and Situated, meaning that emotions take different shapes in different situations.
Different cultures employ different models. In cultures with MINE model, emotions are experienced from within the person, and internal feelings and physical sensations play a major role. In OURS cultures, people experience emotions through their (emotions’) relation to external factors, such as social situations, norms and expectations.
Societies that adhere to MINE model put the cultural emphasis on the individual and her inner feelings. They allow and celebrate the full expression of the person’s feelings and value authenticity — ability to express oneself fully and truly.
Societies with OURS model, allow negotiated emotions — emotions that fit social environment and cultural context they exist in. Being authentic in such cultures equals to being an immature person.
🚫 Is Being Happy Wrong?
Each culture has right and wrong emotions. Right emotions are encouraged and rewarded, wrong ones — avoided and punished. Usually, we tend to think that there are some emotions that are universally right across cultures — like happiness or love, and there are some that are universally wrong — like anger and shame.
Mesquita denies such universality. She provides cultural analysis for four of them: shame, anger, love and happiness. I found the most interesting one being happiness — lets talk about it.
United States is the primary example of a culture with MINE model. Happiness in the American context is a right emotion: it is active, energetic and encourages higher levels of excitement. The reason for this, according to Mesquita, is that such style of happiness acts as the foundation for the core pillars of American lifestyle: success, control and choice. Being successful and in control (over life, things or people) are important parts of happiness. They allow people to feel good and be proud of themselves. Feeling of happiness is also a nagivational force when it comes to making life choices. American phrase “Do what will make you happy” is a frequent advice given to young people, which in essence, tells to make a life decision based on what felt good.1
In contrast, Asian cultures, representatives of OURS model, do not ascribe such centrality to happiness in their lifestyles and do not necessarily see it as a good emotion. For example, in Chinese context, achieving happiness is not the end goal in itself. I like the following quote from the book:
Robin Wang, a Chinese philosopher and Daoist, taught her two American-born daughters to stick to “mama Wang’s rules,” which were simple enough: Eat well, exercise daily, get plenty of sleep, and do well in school. One of her daughters inquired: “What about being happy?” “No,” she answered her daughter, “being happy is not important.”
In Chinese culture, happiness plays a secondary role. Chinese people accept happiness, as well as its sister — unhappiness, as cyclical waves of life, not as the life goal. The goal is, if any, to be flexible and keep adjusting to change — the only constant force in life.
Japanese people see cheerful and excited happiness common among Americans as harmful for maintaining balanced social relationships. In one study, while American college students associated happiness with feeling good and proud, Japanese students described its negative qualities, such as its elusiveness, the inability to identify it and keep forever, and its deceptive quality that distances individuals from the reality. As Mesquita notes, in Japanese context, “happiness is “socially disruptive,” because it makes people inattentive to their environment and their obligations.”
I can identify with these sentiments around happiness. In Kazakh culture, wishing to someone to be happy and aiming to be happy is a relatively recent phenomenon. In my childhood, being happy for most families was closely associated with being able to survive: to have enough food, to have a warm house to live in, to have a health to take care of children and elders, to always have relatives around who can help in tough times, and to have a peace (and not war). People did not want to be happy because it felt good, but because being happy meant being able to survive.
People did not want to be happy because it felt good, but because being happy meant being able to survive.
Partly for this reason as well, parents usually do not allow you to be too cheerful and excited when you feel happy, because it may be insensitive towards people who are less lucky than you. It is fine to express your happiness, but only when the social context allows it.
👨🏻💻 Happiness and Work
Different cultural perceptions of happiness have interesting implications for people’s motivation to work hard. In one study, researchers conducted experiment to understand what motivates people to work hard in two cultures — American and Japanese. Researchers found out that American participants of the experiment work hard when they know that they are good at doing it. Being good in some tasks/skills helps them to recognize own excellence and expertise, which in turn brings a dose of happiness. They avoid hard work when this is not the case.2
Japanese participants were motivated to work hard on a certain task when they previously failed at it. They do not focus on the outcome of the work and potential happiness it may bring, but rather on the potential consequences of failing — for example, letting someone down or feeling embarrassed.
⛺️ Calmness as Happiness
East Asian cultures associated happiness with the state of calmness and peacefulness, as opposed to American’s version that focuses on being energized and excited. Masquita notes that many Western researchers ignore such conception of calm happiness because the majority of emotion scales (indicators showing range of emotions from anger to happiness) only measure excited happiness.
This difference has real implications on how people understand the notion of “being healthy” in different cultures. Healthy person in the American context is a person having an active lifestyle. In the Japanese context, being healthy means engaging in passive activities that bring calmness and peacefulness — like taking a hot bath.
Another example: depression among Hong Kong Chinese means not being calm enough, while for Americans depression equals to a lack of energy and excitement.
🏖 Final Thoughts
As someone who works and lives in a multicultural environment and does not speak in native language on a daily basis, I find Between Us and the arguments it provides relatable. It helped me to understand the cultural roots of my own emotions — those that I accept, those that I resist and those, I was not aware of. Kazakh culture would clearly fall into OURS model, but I am not sure to if this 100% true — I wish there were studies on cultural origins of Kazakh emotions (if there are, let me know).
The book also helped me to better understand situations when I was emotionally out-of-sync with people of different cultures. For example, I do not vibe with extra cheerfulness, big celebrations and loud words of appraisal that are encouraged in Western cultures. And yet, sometimes I feel ashamed and almost guilty for not behaving that way just because the context requires it. This kind of out-of-sync moments, Masquita warns, potentially lead to alienation and feelings of exclusion. As she writes, “It is hard to belong when you do not do emotions like the people around you.” The solution is, Masquita proposes, to accept that emotions are the products of cultures where they originated.
It is hard to belong when you do not do emotions like the people around you
Her is advice is “do not assume that a person who does not behave the way you expect is suppressing their authentic, real emotion. Ask.” Good one.
Between Us: How Cultures Create Emotions available in German Amazon.
⭐️ My Favourite Things
💰 Video: A dream of mine came true by Steve Antonioni. If you are someone like me, then you care about financial indepedence. Steve talks about abudance and scarcity mindset and how differently they affect your thoughts and mental well-being.
📕 Book: Soft City: Building Density for Everyday Life by David Sim. Started reading recently, and seems fascinating - especially if you are interested in urbanism.
📝 Article: The Favorite Budapest Places Of A New York Times Journalist by Tas Tobias. OFFBEAT Budapest is probably one of few well-written English publications about Budapest (possibly the only one?), and its creator Tas does amazing job at giving the readers the insider view on Budapest.
💻 Start-up: Divvy Homes, is US-based start-up that re-invents how the process of renting and owning a house. You select a house, Divvy buys it for you and becomes your landlord, you pay your monthly rent to Divvy and the company directs part of that payment toward building your ownership of this house. I pay monthly rent with tears in my eyes and I wish part of that payment would go to acquiring the apartment, that’s why I dig Divvy’s idea so much. It is only for the US though (obviously).
🌇 Vienna: lovely city. Expensive too. Visiting the city few times per year became a tradition. Every time we find something new (to eat).
✍️ Quote of the Week
The point of writing is expression. That’s what I would like to do, in part: express things. And, to some extent, having something to express depends on having a rich existence.
From Stepping Away From Writing Coaching by Sasha Chapin.
Thanks for reading CAESURA! Subscribe for free to receive new posts every week and support my work.
That’s it for this week! Hope you liked and may be found something useful.
Remember that you can reply to this email to let me know what do you think (what you liked? what you disliked? what you want see more?) or just say hi. Also, if you do not already, follow me on Twitter or Insta.
Mesquita notes, however, that this notion is a relatively recent phenomenon that is associated with the rise of consumer culture in the US around 1920s, significantly driven by marketing ad campaigns that advocated buying products that would make consumers happy and satisfied. This notion was not, however, accessible to earlier generations who had to make (tough) choices based on the needs of their family, community or business.
This brings to my mind a very popular idea of the importance of loving the work that you do, which I realize, is an American idea. You have to love what you do in order to be good at it — pretty standard wisdom that comes from books, movies and influencers.