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Different Flavours of Happiness Across Cultures

Feelings: Nature vs Nurture

Ever wonder why people in different places feel and show their emotions in different ways? Psychology researchers previously believed that emotions were biologically based and universal. i.e. Given the same cues, people from anywhere in the world will respond in the same way. However we now know that where you grow up also has an influence. And here’s the real twist: it doesn’t just change what we feel, but what we want to feel as well.

The Two Dimensions of Feelings

The study of emotions can be broken down into two fundamental dimensions: valence and arousal. Valence is about positive or negative emotions and is measured on a pleasure-displeasure dimension. Arousal is about the intensity of your emotions, and is measured on a low-high dimension.

High vs Low Activation

Some folk love high-arousal peppy states like excitement and enthusiasm. Think jumping around at a concert. These are called “high activation” positive states. Others prefer calm, peaceful vibes, such as serenity. These are called “low activation” positive states. They’re like different flavours of happiness!

Culture’s Feelings Recipe

Your culture helps you decide how you define happiness. So one person's “ideal emotion" or version of happiness can be quite different to another. In Asia, social pressure is to keep strong emotions to yourself in order to support a harmonious environment, and low activation emotions promote this. However in the US it’s more about being yourself and having agency, and high activation emotions promote this. These cultural influences begin from the earliest stages of socialisation. For example, children’s books from the US typically show big smiles and intense positive emotions when compared to books from Asian countries.

Fiesta and Simpatía in Mexico

In Mexico and most Latin cultures, happiness is highly valued. Simpatía is a cultural script that promotes vibrant expression of positive emotion, getting along with others and being charming (Ramírez-Esparza, Gosling, & Pennebaker, 2008). Furthermore, in Mexico a core personality trait is Expressive Sociability, which includes being extraverted, outgoing and communicative (Diaz-Love and Draguns, 1999), contributing to the culture of fiestas and group socialising. Mexicans were found to value high activation states, placing them in stark contrast to Asian nations (Ramírez-Esparza, et. al., 2008). This is particularly noteworthy as it shows how collectivist cultures can be really different.

Happy and Excited in Mexico
Happy and Excited in Mexico

Yes to Cultural Awareness: No to stereotypes

“There’s a risk sometimes when you overemphasize a difference. You might be inadvertently promoting stereotypes of people from particular groups.” ―William Tov, associate professor of psychology at Singapore Management University, researcher in the psychology of happiness and high/low activation.

It’s a delicate balance. Awareness of the influence of culture can help us to keep our assumptions and misconceptions in check. For example, if you’re from a high activation culture, you may make the mistake of perceiving those from a low activation culture as having lower levels of happiness or well being (the whole field of psychology made this mistake for a while…) Cultural awareness needs to be carefully balanced with not seeing others as walking stereotypes. We’ve seen that culture influences the flavour of happiness that we seek. However within any culture there’s a huge range of diversity and individual expression. So now you know a bit about feelings and culture! Keeping being curious and having fun learning.


Diaz-Loving, R., & Draguns, J. G. (1999). Culture, meaning, and personality in Mexico and in the United States. In Y.-T. Lee, C. R. McCauley, & J. G. Draguns (Eds.), Personality and person perception across cultures (pp. 103–126). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Ramirez-Esparza, N., Gosling, S. D., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2008). Paradox Lost: Unraveling the puzzle of Simpatia. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 29 (6), 703-715.

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