Happiness is Research about Happiness
A smile — that universal expression of happiness — usually needs no translation. Upturned corners of a mouth mean “gladness”; add teeth and you have jubilation. Yet, as with most things in human life, it’s not always that simple. What makes one person put on a happy face might make another express ambivalence at best. Add in the multiple ways another culture defines happiness, and you have expressions of glee as wide and varied as the different degrees of that smile.
Dr. Deirdre Johnston, professor of communication and interim associate dean of global studies at Hope, and Dr. Rika Hanamitsu, a professor of communication at Waseda University in Tokyo who served as a visiting professor at Hope during the 2018-19 academic year, have been investigating cross-cultural definitions of happiness between the United States and Japan since 2015. The two met 10 years ago, when Johnston was visiting Tokyo on a Great Lakes Colleges Association trip. Since then, they have collaborated often on teaching and research. Their first project, a multi-institutional, cross-cultural global exposure study in six countries, was published in the journal Intercultural Communication Studies in 2015. “Photovoice Analysis of Cross-Cultural Happiness in Japan and USA” is their second project, and it is uncovering an interesting and glad array of ways to be happy.
In question-and-answer format with interviewer Eva Dean Folkert ’83, here is when the project came to be, how it worked, what the two researchers found and why it matters.
First, you both seem to be happy in each other’s company.
Why do you like conducting research together?
Dede: We generate fun and creative projects together, and we enjoy learning from each other. We each provide a cultural framework to understanding the projects we work on, and this is a great learning opportunity. We also discover and explore cultural biases in existing research, and this speaks to the importance of engaging in cross-cultural research teams. We’ve had a great deal of fun working together as our friendship has grown. We’ve involved a lot of students in the projects as well, and we’ve enjoyed working together with a student research team. Rika is really good at details, like double-checking statistics and making final edits, which I abhor, so it is a great working partnership.
Rika: The greatest part is we’ve developed a long-term friendship through working together.
Why research together on happiness?
Rika: Happiness is a topic that can be researched from a lot of different disciplines, including psychology, sociology, economics, as well as communication studies. There is also a lot of general interest in the topic. It is something we all (across cultures) desire, but there are similarities and differences in how we perceive it, pursue it and experience it. The photography aspect of this project makes it particularly unique and interesting. For me personally, photography is something special because my father was a professional photographer and I grew up with photographs. They capture the moment we tend to miss in daily life as well as the moment we want to record.
Dede: I was intrigued with the happiness lists that started appearing in the media, which ranked countries and states and cities according to their level of happiness. The question that plagued me was: “Do different countries and cultures actually define and experience happiness in the same way?” I thought they might not, making those surveys and rankings spurious. As an empiricist, I wanted to explore it.
So, how did you conduct your study?
It’s quite qualitative in nature.
Rika: Data collection for our project was rather unique. We recruited a stratified sample across four different age groups (18-29, 30-44, 45-65, over 65) in both the United States and Japan. Each participant was given a disposable camera and a booklet with questions. Participants were instructed to conduct the project during a 24-hour period. When they noticed that they were experiencing happiness, they were to pause, take a photograph that represented their happiness at that moment, and answer five narrative prompts reflecting on their happy thoughts. Participants also took a short standardized pre- and post-test happiness assessment at the beginning and end of their 24-hour data collection.
This study has been four years in the making.
What causes a study to take that amount of time?
[They both laugh.]
Dede: It is a very complicated data project with a lot of narrative and photo data. Many qualitative studies have a much smaller sample size, and to code five photos for each of 80 participants, and to code five narrative answers for each of five photos for 80 participants, was a bit overwhelming.
Rika: The topic is vast. And there are many different aspects to this data set which may evolve into multiple publications and possibly a book.
Here, in their combined words, is what they found:
- Emotional complexity! A typical way of measuring more differentiated and nuanced emotions was higher for the United States sample, but we believe this measure to be culturally biased because it is related to the number of language descriptors used to describe an emotional experience. Japanese people are less likely to use numerous linguistic descriptors because in the Japanese language one word can cover multiple nuanced meanings depending upon the context. One word might cover multiple feelings. Japanese participants used fewer emotion words to describe their experience of happiness but were more likely to use in-depth metaphors. This is important because American people seek more specific and nuanced descriptions of the type of happiness they are experiencing, and Japanese people engage in more reflection on the meaning of their happiness experiences.
- Pre-happiness was significantly higher among Japanese participants, and the process of engaging in the study had a significant impact on increasing the happiness of both Japanese and American participants. In other words, the findings support all those gratitude studies that suggest that focusing on things for which you are grateful really does impact your mood. We believe that the act of focusing on and reflecting on one’s happiness during the day actually increases happiness.
- The things and events that generated happiness varied by culture. Japanese participants recorded food and events significantly more often than did American participants. American participants reported animals and specific people or the number of people as sources of happiness significantly more often.
- American participants were more literal in their experience of happiness, and Japanese participants were more symbolic. An American participant might ride a bike and report happiness; a Japanese participant might be walking and report happiness because walking is a symbol of their good health. An American might see a new bike and report how the bike itself bring happiness, and a Japanese participant might see a new bike and reflect on how the bike symbolizes the love of a parent who bought the bike.
- American participants did engage in some symbolism, as they were more likely than Japanese participants to find happiness in seeing an object that evoked a past happy memory. Does this suggest that American people experience happiness in an immediate gratification kind of way, and Japan people experience happiness tied to a larger meaning of life context? This is consistent with other research that shows that Japanese people see the larger context (meta-focus), and American people focus on one or two dominant features (micro-focus). (For example, the Japanese person might represent a view by including the entire fish tank and its interrelated elements, and the American person might represent the same view with a close-up of one big fish). In intercultural communication, we talk about high- and low-context cultures. Research shows that Japan is a high-context culture (reading many interrelated contextual cues) and the American is a low-context culture (depending less on contextual cues to derive meaning).
- Japanese participants were more likely to report happiness from quotidian experiences – for example, “My noodles make me happy as I have these same noodles for lunch every day,” or “Walking to school makes me happy as I walk to school every day.” American participants were more likely to report happiness from unexpected events and surprise occurrences. This might suggest that American people might be too dependent upon the unusual occurrence rather than fully appreciating their daily routines as a source of happiness. This could limit the experience of happiness in the United States.
- American participants were more likely to experience happiness associated with higher arousal (e.g., excitement) and Japan participants were more likely to experience happiness as low arousal (e.g., calmness, contentment). This is consistent with other research and again might suggest that American participants do not fully appreciate calmness and contentment, or at least do not associate it with happiness. This suggests that people define happiness differently across cultures.
- Older adults in both cultures were more likely to experience happiness associated with things that were expected (not a surprise), lower arousal (contentment), quotidian events and associations with past memories.
So, why is any of this important, anyway?
Dede: Overall, this study is important because comparisons of countries on the ranking of happiness do not reflect that different cultures may experience, define and contextualize happiness differently. In terms of intercultural communication, when we refer to happiness, we may not be referencing exactly the same experience. We can learn from each other the ways in which each culture may constrain or limit the experience of happiness, and this knowledge could promote greater happiness for all. In addition, the study of cross-cultural happiness promotes intercultural competence through understanding of others’ emotions and experiences, as well as a greater self-awareness.