Happiness, Culture, and Context


  • Gordon Mathews The Chinese University of Hong Kong


happiness, wellbeing, well-being, statistical surveys, ethnographic research, culture, the cultural supermarket


The first part of this paper discusses why statistical comparisons of happiness and wellbeing are insufficient. It considers criticisms of these statistical comparisons, and discusses how, while they are useful for some purposes, they do not enable fully adequate cross-cultural comparison. The paper then discusses the problem of surveys both in terms of language, given the subtly different terms in different languages for happiness, and in terms of culture, arguing that difference in cultures can cause the findings of surveys to be less than transparent. It then turns to a consideration of culture itself, which has become increasingly problematic in anthropology in recent decades. ‘Culture’ is a term that has been shifting in its meanings. Culture no longer refers simply to ‘the way of life of a people,’ but also to the array of choices individuals make from ‘the global cultural supermarket’; culture in both these senses needs to be analyzed in terms of how it develops in the individual, as recent anthropological theories have been exploring. This new-found complexity of culture does not mean that researchers on subjective wellbeing should abandon culture as a variable; rather, they should augment statistical surveys of wellbeing, which are based on the older, conventional conception of culture, with ethnographic interviewing conducted by researchers who understand the language and culture in a given society. Only on this basis can the cross-cultural study of wellbeing reach its full potential, the paper argues, a potential uniting of different academic disciplines in a common endeavor, that of fully understanding what happiness means and how it can best be attained in the world.


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Author Biography

Gordon Mathews, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

I am a Professor in the Dept. of Anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. I have written What Males Life Worth Living: How Japanese and Americans Make Sense of Their Worlks (U. of California Press 196), and edited with Carolina Izquierdo Oursuits of Happiness: Well-Being in Anthropological Perspective.