For Americans, happiness isn’t an elusive concept. Multiple surveys, including this one by Myers and Diener, have found that North America has the highest concentration of happy people in the world. Moreover, one-third of Americans report that they are “very happy,” compared with 10% of Portugese and similar percentages of Italians and Frenchmen. Yet for Polish linguist Anna Wierzbicka, this is a deceptive statistic that misrepresents key linguistic, semantic, and cultural differences. In a sharp rebuke of cross-cultural happiness surveys that make sweeping generalizations, Wierzbicka urges a more sophisticated approach to the question of global well-being.
“Being happy” doesn’t mean the same thing to Americans that “sehr glucklich” does to Germans.
Happiness is a complex concept informed by the surrounding culture. Thus, each language brings a nuanced connotation to its word for “happiness.” For instance, Mandarin has two putative counterparts for the English “happy” (xi, which means…, and li, which means…), neither of which exactly matches the meaning of the English word. Cross-cultural surveys such as those referred to above require a common, universal measure of emotion for definitive results; this is difficult to achieve in studies in which participants are provided with a translated version of an originally English survey.
The meaning of the word “happy” has undergone a significant semantic shift as part of the gradual dampening of emotions in Anglo-Saxon culture.
Languages are cultural entities in flux: meanings meander and new words appear according to societal trends. In the words of lexicographer Kory Stamper, “…language is a true democracy, built entirely by the people who use and have used it” (Word by Word). For many centuries, the English language has gradually shifted away from expressing emotional intensity. Words like “grief,” “woe,” or “sorrows,” that were once used frequently in daily conversation today refer exclusively to bereavement or similarly bleak situations. The use of the adjective “happy” has expanded to apply to a broader spectrum of situations. I can be pretty happy that I received a passing grade on a test, but also very happy that I received the job appointment of my dreams. This has led to an especially interesting phenomenon: while English speakers can express their “level of happiness” on a gradable scale, other cultures refer to “happiness” (in their language) as an absolute or peak experience. The implications are clear for cross-cultural surveys that ask whether respondents are “very happy,” “happy,” or “pretty happy” with their current life.
Local cultural norms produce different attitudes toward experiencing and expressing positive emotions.
Wierzbicka cites numerous memoirs and poems by foreigners that attest to the uniquely American tendency to smile, always display positive thinking, and engage in cheerful small talk. It is clear that different cultures place different emphasis on verbal and nonverbal expressions of positive emotion. Future surveys must therefore take into consideration the impact of cultural norms on a respondent’s assessment of his emotions and his self-reporting of his emotional state.