Happiness in the Eastern Asian Culture

Nicole Herleman, Honorbound

Emotions connect people around the world. While people from Peru to China to Mexico to the United States may not be able to communicate with each other verbally, a simple facial expression can silently convey a universal message. One of the most recognizable facial expressions is the smile. Charles Darwin, an early scientist who studied the meaning of the smile, found that the “causes, consequences, and manifestations” of a smile are understood across cultures, whereas “other nonverbal actions such as gestures and touch differ between cultures.” [1] Darwin concluded that “smiling is the outward manifestation of happiness and serves to begin to connect us to others.”[2] Smiling is an external sign of an emotion shared by people around the world: happiness. However, happiness can have different meanings for different cultures.

For Eastern Asians, happiness depends largely on the individual’s role in the community as opposed from coming within the individual himself. Confucian ideals see interpersonal enlightenment as the key to happiness. In these cultures, collectivism is believed to be the center of thought and action. [3] Commitments to social roles and fulfilling social obligations are important parts of the lives of people living in Eastern Asian regions. [4] People growing up in these cultures tend to find happiness by engaging in social relationships and “mutual sympathy.” [5] Thus, happiness results as the fulfillment of social harmony. This idea of happiness differs from Aristotle’s impression of happiness which focused more on the individual; however, it shares some common beliefs with the Utilitarianism view which promotes the total happiness for the group as most important.

Aristotle believes that all human activities aim at “good.” In “Nicomachean Ethics,” he explains that “the end is the good” meaning that good is in an end in itself. [6] Aristotle defines a happy man as “one who exercises his faculties in accordance with perfect excellence, being duly furnished with external goods, not for any chance time, but for a full term of years. To which perhaps we should add, ‘and who shall continue to live so, and shall die as he lived.’” [7] With this statement, Aristotle is explaining that one who is happy lives in accordance to his virtues. Aristotle teaches that the function of man is reasoning and acting according to reason. A person should not want to behave according to his virtues because of an extrinsic reward, but rather for the fact that he naturally does so.

Aristotle also taught that virtue is the mean between excessive and deficiency. For example, both too much courage and a lack of courage are not ideal because too much courage could result in injury and not enough courage results in cowardice. [8] Because Aristotle places a great emphasis on the cultivation of one’s own virtues, he stresses the importance of finding happiness within oneself which differs from the Eastern Asian view of the link between community and happiness. Aristotle expresses the European and Western view of happiness which is individualistic. In these societies, individuals tend to put their own needs before the needs of the community and find happiness in developing internal attributes which include preferences, desires, and traits. [9] Thus, individuals of these communities place achieving their own goals first and believe this will be a factor in finding happiness. Because the West puts a heavy emphasis on the importance of autonomy and the individual, Westerners often view individual success as an important indicator of happiness. [9] Aristotle’s writings reflect the idea of the importance of the individual.

Furthermore, Aristotle argues that the “exercise of faculty is desirable when nothing is expected from it beyond itself.” [10] He is explaining that those who seek to live virtuous lives find pleasure in doing so and do not act with virtue because they are seeking an external reward. If a person finds these actions burdensome, they are not living with virtue. In the Eastern Asian culture, people derive some of their motivation from the external reward of bringing pride to their families [11]. For some actions, they may be more motivated by the happiness and comfort and action may bring for their families than from the pleasure that the individual will receive from the action. For example, the kamikaze pilots from Japan during World War II were believed to have found happiness in sacrificing themselves because they knew that it would bring a great honor to their families. [12] While Aristotle argued that those who perform virtuous acts should not do so because of the reward, but rather because they are naturally inclined to do so, the Eastern culture view finds motivation and happiness in the reward they and their families will receive.

Differing from Aristotle’s view of happiness in “ Nicomachean Ethics.” John Stuart Mill shares his impression of what makes humans happy in his writing “Utilitarianism.” While Aristotle taught that happiness could be found in the mean between two excesses, Mill focuses more on extremes. Mill defines happiness as pleasure with the absence of pain. [13] He believes that actions are just if they promote happiness, but are wrong if they produce “the reverse of happiness.” Mills believes that happiness is the only thing that has intrinsic value. Like Aristotle, Mills taught that we do not need extrinsic motivation to strive for happiness.

Additionally, when measuring pleasure, Mill states that one must not only measure quality, but also quantity. [14] Similar to Aristotle’s beliefs, Mill says that the faculties to achieve happiness coincide with “natural” sentiments, however, unlike Aristotle, he believes the sentiments originate from humans’ social nature. Therefore, if society were to embrace Utilitarianism as an ethic, people would naturally internalize these standards as morally binding. Mills argues that moral action increases the utility in the world, so one cannot put one’s own happiness before social happiness. This is different from Aristotle’s view but similar to that of the Eastern societies. According to Mills, Utilitarians believe in sacrificing their own good for the good of others. However, he does not support sacrifice in itself, only if it will bring a greater amount of happiness to the world. An example of this type of sacrificial act would be Jesus’s death on the cross. Jesus suffered and compromised his happiness in order to ensure the happiness of all of the future generations. While critics of “Utilitarianism” may argue that the concept is bad because it only considers the consequences of people’s actions and not the morality within the individual, Mills argues that it is a mistake to only focus on moral feelings. The Eastern Asian culture would agree with this belief as well, as it believes happiness is made up of more than internal sentiment alone.

Like Aristotle, Mills argues that there is a difference between the pleasure that animals seek and the pleasure that humans seek. Human pleasures are superior to animal pleasures because “a being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy.” [15] Humans find that some pleasures are intrinsically more valuable than others. He argues that it depends on the quality of the pleasure. He explains that higher pleasures are those that people would not trade for a greater amount of a lower pleasure, even if the higher pleasure brought some discontent. Only those who have experienced a range of pleasures, from low quality to high quality, can determine what quality a certain pleasure is.

Utilitarianism would support the Eastern Asian cultural view which states that happiness is “an embedded, conjoint agent who acts in attunement with goals and desires of the surrounding others.” [16] The Eastern culture believes that personal pleasure alone can destroy social relationship and lead to jealousy.[17] While Aristotle believes that happiness is living according to reason and exercising our virtues excellently, Mills focuses on the idea of happiness that strives to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. While both of these concepts can be applied to the Eastern Asian view of happiness, the community facet of Mills’ theory most closely coincides with the Eastern Asian belief of what constitutes happiness.

[1] “The Surprising Psychology of Smiling.” Psychology Today. Accessed May 02, 2016. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sideways-view/201410/the-surprising-psychology-smiling.
[2]”The Surprising Psychology of Smiling.” Psychology Today. Accessed May 02, 2016. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sideways-view/201410/the-surprising-psychology-smiling.
[3] “Perception of Happiness; Western & East-Asian Cultures.” Perception of Happiness; Western & East-Asian Cultures. Accessed May 02, 2016. https://jweinb2.wordpress.com/page/2/.
[4] “Perception of Happiness; Western & East-Asian Cultures.” Perception of Happiness; Western & East-Asian Cultures. Accessed May 02, 2016. https://jweinb2.wordpress.com/page/2/.
[5] “Perception of Happiness; Western & East-Asian Cultures.” Perception of Happiness; Western & East-Asian Cultures. Accessed May 02, 2016. https://jweinb2.wordpress.com/page/2/.
[6] Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. London, 1925.
[7] Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. London, 1925.
[8] Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. London, 1925.
[9] “Happiness: East vs West Differences in Perceptions « Dr Deborah Swallow – Global Cultural Diversity..” Dr Deborah Swallow Global Cultural Diversity Happiness East vs West Differences in Perceptions Comments. Accessed May 03, 2016. http://www.deborahswallow.com/2009/08/19/happiness-east-vs-west-differences-in-perceptions/.
[10] Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. London, 1925.
[11] “The Hero Project | Cultural Perspectives.” The Hero Project | Cultural Perspectives. Accessed May 05, 2016. http://cronkitezine.asu.edu/spring2012/theheroproject/kamikaze.html.
[12] “The Hero Project | Cultural Perspectives.” The Hero Project | Cultural Perspectives. Accessed May 05, 2016. http://cronkitezine.asu.edu/spring2012/theheroproject/kamikaze.html.
[13] Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957.
[14] Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957.
[15] Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957.
[16] “Perception of Happiness; Western & East-Asian Cultures.” Perception of Happiness; Western & East-Asian Cultures. Accessed May 02, 2016. https://jweinb2.wordpress.com/page/2/.
[17] “Perception of Happiness; Western & East-Asian Cultures.” Perception of Happiness; Western & East-Asian Cultures. Accessed May 02, 2016. https://jweinb2.wordpress.com/page/2/.

Picture

[18] “Pediatric Dentist Ronkonkoma, Whitestone & Astoria, NY – First Visit.” Pediatric Dentist Ronkonkoma, Whitestone & Astoria, NY – First Visit. Accessed May 05, 2016. http://www.dentalsmiles4kids.com/first-visit.php.

Advertisements

One thought on “Happiness in the Eastern Asian Culture

  1. I never thought about how one’s definition of happiness could differ from another because of where they lived. The U.S. is more individualistic so they tend to find happiness for themselves while China is more communal so they tend to seek happiness for their community. In a way, China seems less selfish and the best way to go about finding happiness; however, most Chinese citizens look for happiness in pleasure, or in honor/virtue. Overall, Aristotle claims that true happiness cannot be found in neither honor nor pleasure due to the fact that living for pleasure is slavish and honor depends not on the person but on what others think of him. In the end, I do not think there is a right or wrong answer to finding happiness in this case because both Aristotle and Mills support their theories with great support. Good job!
    Lauren Whisler

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s