In Sight

A New Approach to Happiness

What people around the world mean when they say they’re happy.

by Ana Swanson
© 2016, THE WASHINGTON POST

Even though she is still healthy and lively, Mrs. Xie has already prepared the clothes she will be buried in.

An 86-year-old Chinese woman who lives in Dongshan, a city on China’s southeastern coast, Mrs. Xie has an active life. Yet she has already bought the pants, shirt, shoes, earrings and purse she will wear after she dies, as well as an embroidered yellow pillow for her head. She had a portrait taken that will be displayed at her funeral. And she wrapped the items neatly in a cardboard box to await her death.

For many people in the West, picking out an outfit for your own funeral might seem sad or macabre. But Mrs. Xie and her friends see it as a cause for reassurance, even celebration.

Mrs. Xie showed off her burial clothes to her friends and a visiting researcher, Becky Hsu, an assistant professor of sociology at Georgetown. The scene was almost like a party.

“It’s a happy thing,” one woman told Ms. Hsu about preparing burial clothes. “Everybody does it. I’ve had mine for more than 10 years!”

The idea that getting ready for one’s funeral can be “a happy thing” shows just how much ideas of happiness can differ from country to country. And it suggests that creating a definition of happiness that holds true for people around the world—a central preoccupation of researchers who study well-being— is not as straightforward as it seems.

One of the Chinese words for “happiness,” xingfu, . . . refers not to a good mood, but a good life, as well as a life with meaning.

Each year, packs of sociologists and survey workers descend on different countries to ask people about their happiness. Surveys such as Pew’s “Ladder of Life,” The World Values Survey and the United Nations’ World Happiness Report measure and rank countries in terms of their well-being.

One goal of these surveys is to figure out what ingredients make a happy society. Critics say the measure that most countries use to track progress— gross domestic product—excludes some of the most important parts of human life.

Measures of happiness that work equally well in countries all around the world are a Holy Grail for sociologists— sought after, but rarely found. Critics point out that different surveys tend to produce substantially different, and sometimes surprising, results, and they question whether these measures are really capturing happiness, or something else.

“All those pieces that come out . . . are like, ‘Denmark is the happiest country in the world!’ And then another piece comes out that is like, ‘Colombia is the happiest country in the world!’ ” Ms. Hsu says. “It’s hard to tell what the questions are measuring. A question like, ‘How happy are you, from 1 to 5?’ has a lot of problems.”

The concept of happiness varies in different cultures and languages.

Perhaps the biggest problem is how the concept of “happiness” varies in different cultures and languages.

In English, for example, the word happy can refer to different things. It might mean a fleeting mood you feel when someone surprises you with a gift or you think of friends and family. Or it could refer to a deeper and less malleable state of satisfaction with your life.

But not all languages refer to happiness the same way. A paper published in the International Journal of Language and Culture notes that the question, “How happy are you?” is difficult to ask in many languages, and couldn’t even be properly posed in the English of Shakespeare or Chaucer’s time.

For example, Denmark is often ranked among the world’s happiest countries— which is something of a mystery to those who have lived among the relatively solemn Danes. Some researchers say the reason is that happiness in Danish is often translated as lykke— a term that can describe a kind of everyday well-being that might be brought on by a nice cup of coffee or a slice of bread with cheese. Others argue that the Danish results might be due in part to a cultural reluctance to burden strangers with their troubles.

Other studies suggests that German, French, Polish and Russian speakers use their equivalent terms for “happy” or “happiness” to refer to a state that’s much rarer than English or Danish terms. Still other research argues that, in many languages, the term for “happy” involves a much stronger role for luck or fortune than it does in modern English— closer to what “happy” meant in English several centuries ago.

In Chinese, there are actually several different terms for happiness, each of which have a slightly different meaning.

A better measure for happiness?

Ms. Hsu and her colleagues are carrying out their own happiness survey in China, with the hope of learning how to better measure happiness not just in China, but in other countries, as well. Their survey focuses on three dimensions of happiness—a good mood, a good life and a sense of whether one’s life has meaning.

Ms. Hsu finds that the English words happy and happiness encompass just part of those definitions. One of the Chinese words for “happiness,” xingfu, unlike the English translation of happiness, refers not to a good mood, but a good life, as well as a life with meaning.

For many people in China, a happy life includes having a good death, and that means being prepared—even your clothes. “It’s not that death itself is a good thing, it’s that it is the next thing,” Ms. Hsu says. “So you can have a good one. You can do it well.”