Have you ever been asked, “are you happy?”  It can be awkward to answer, as you must read between the lines of the person asking the question. What do they define as “happy?”  It also makes you answer the question as well.  

Attempting to answer is not instructive.  The question is a “yes” or “no” question, and the answer doesn’t spell out how you define happiness.  It asks if you have arrived, but it doesn’t ask about the route or where you were coming from.

“But are they happy?” was a question I got asked twice this last weekend at a family wedding.  Each time, I smiled, as it meant that I needed to know not only what the person asking the question thought happiness meant, but it also meant that I know what the other party defined as happiness.

It was tempting to say something like, “I hope so,” or “I guess,” in a polite attempt to avoid the philosophical discourse behind the power of the words. Still, I said something equally unforgettable and fielded a few more questions.  

As I pondered the original question the rest of the evening, I concluded that my faith and the definitions it creates are not universal.  They aren’t even in the majority, and they have never been.  My google search displayed that “no religion” remains the world’s most common faith, as it has since my birth.  Christianity comes in 2nd, and Islam is third, but Islam is growing faster than Christianity.  The Pew Research Center estimates that in the second half of the 21st century, the number of Muslims will have surpassed the number of Christians.  I know few Muslims, but I know many “I don’t know” types, and they seem to be the fastest-growing.  

Let’s change the question to answer from a culturally sensitive perspective.  Let me ask, “what is it that Americans use to define happiness?”

I found this study thorough, and it uncovered that 49 percent of Americans referred explicitly to family relationships in their definition of happiness.  As an interesting converse, Southern Europeans and Latin Americans generally conceive happiness as less about relationship with others and more about relationship with self.  Just 22 percent of Portuguese, 18 percent of Mexicans, and 10 percent of Argentines talked about their families in their happiness definitions.

Is This Happiness?

Is This Happiness?

That begs the question, “do you need meaningful family relationships to be happy?”  

Another cultural difference I discovered existed between Asia and Euro-American definitions of happiness.  Two Japanese scholars surfaced a critical cultural difference in the description of happiness between these two cultures.  In the West, they found happiness to be defined as “a high arousal state such as excitement and a sense of personal achievement.” Meanwhile, in Asia, “happiness is defined by experiencing a low arousal state such as calmness.” Total opposite experiences, yet each is sharing the same definition.

There is also a difference in levels of attachment between the West Coast and East Coast USA.  People in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions tend to display more attachment anxiety (“When will you call?”), while the western states breed more attachment avoidance (“See you when I see you”) as they equate freedom and happiness.  

A quick dive into history unwound more thought-provoking content.  The Word happiness comes from the Middle English hap, which means “luck.” Meanwhile, in Latin-based languages, the term comes from Felicitas, which referred in ancient Rome not just to good luck but also to growth, fertility, and prosperity.  In the historical sense, the West has always included family and personal achievement in their definition.  In the Eastern world, happiness is equated to peace and a state of calmness with the world and its oscillations.  No attempts to change it or yourself to it are part of their definition.  They are deeply in tune with the idea of gratitude in your present circumstance.  I had not perceived that they are opposite until I looked into this topic in the hours after the wedding.  

Instead of asking, “are you happy?” or “are they happy?” it seems to make more sense to ask what happiness is.  

Is This Happiness?

I am sure that I don’t need family relationships to achieve happiness, but I am unsure if happiness means a high arousal state or a low arousal state for me.  I identify with the lack of commitment to repeated gatherings with the same person, but I also love the daily bible study with my friends.  A life rich in gratitude is certainly better than a life full of personal achievement, yet I falter at practicing what I preach as “lists” often define my day orders of magnitude more than gratitude does.  Say it ain’t so that they are opposite in the directions that they point us, but they are.  

Expect more on this topic as I sort it out.  


Loving you where you are, as long as you get something done,

Jeff Gaura