Diener, Ed, and Eunkook M. Suh, eds. Culture and Subjective Well-being
A. Celeste Gaia
Diener, Ed, and Eunkook M. Suh, eds. Culture and Subjective Well-being. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2000 (paperback edition, 2003). viii + 355 pp. Cloth, $55.00; paper, $25.00.
Since antiquity, scholars and philosophers have pondered what it is that makes people happy. Likewise, the editors of this book seek to identify factors that contribute to happiness, with a specific focus on the role of culture. This area of research is relatively new and is considered an investigation of “positive psychology,” or a focus on wellness in contrast to mental illness. Diener and Suh offer the most current empirical research in this area, most of which measures subjective well-being (SWB) as a way to assess cultural ideas of the “good life.” Although often equated with happiness, SWB also involves how individuals view the meaning of their lives, their purpose, their potential for growth, and their experience of emotions. The editors assert that well-being can be studied empirically, and that reports of SWB reflect whether or not individuals within a society feel as if they are meeting cultural standards for success. They believe that cultural comparisons may offer insight into why some societies report greater happiness and life satisfaction than others. This volume includes work from some of the leading figures in cross-cultural psychology who explore SWB in relation to its definition, contributing cultural syndromes, the role of the self, individualismcollectivism, genetics, political systems, emotions, income, economics, age, and sex.
One of the most common variables studied in cross-cultural research is the distinction of individualism-collectivism, or opposing cultural orientations that generally value the needs of the individual over the group, or the needs of the group over the individual, respectively. The research included in this book in no exception. The corresponding personality traits of individualism and collectivism are indiocentrism and allocentrism, (1) used by Harry C. Triandis (pp. 13-36), Charlotte Ratzlaff, David Matsumoto, Natalia Kouznetsova, Jacques Roroque, and Rebecca Ray (pp. 37-59) to explain how such cultural orientations may affect behavior.
Whereas an idiocentric person may be motivated by self-imposed standards, an allocentric person may be more concerned about societal standards. The use of these attributes to measure individualism-collectivism has revealed the need to analyze cultural data on both individual and cultural levels. (2) Results often differ from one level to the other. For instance, Triandis provides evidence that SWB at the cultural level is associated with high gross national product per capita, political freedom, social equality, high levels of trust, efficient public institutions, satisfactory citizen-bureaucrat relationships, and social security, whereas civil and international conflict, oppression of the political opposition, undemocratic government and many vulnerabilities can lower SWB (pp. 16-17). At the individual level, good health, adequate education, fit between personality and culture, personal growth, purpose of life, self-acceptance, and a sense of self-determination, among other factors, can increase SWB. Yet, as Triandis observes, unemployment, poor health, and poor personality-to-culture fit may decrease SWB at the individual level (pp. 31-32).
Studies show that North Americans are more likely to report greater SWB, (3) and to view themselves in self-serving ways, when compared to their East Asian counterparts. (4) Differences in self-construals may be partially responsible for cultural variations in SWB. One salient aspect of individualism is self-orientation, prevalent among westerners. Psychological theories of well-being have been constructed around this idea and reflect a focus on the self in matters of mental and physical health. Terms such as “self-actualization” and “self-esteem” indicate Western ideals, Suh writes (pp. 63-86).
Western motives such as self-enhancement and self-consistency are common in individualistic cultures, (5) and often are considered positive signs of mental health. (6) East Asian cultures, considered collectivistic and allocentric, do not have this self-focus. Suh provides an illustration of this when describing a Korean wife who introduces her husband and the father of her children to a stranger by saying, “This is our father” (p. 64). This woman’s expression showed her cultural custom of drawing attention away from herself in a social interaction. However, the authors make it clear that cultural orientation is only one factor that may affect well-being.
Although there is the popular conception that money buys happiness, research only partially supports this idea. SWB is positively associated with income, but only up to a point. Dramatic increases in income, such as from poverty to sustenance, are strongly related to SWB. However, as Diener and Shigehiro Oishi note, the average industrialized countries, like the United States, have not experienced growing SWB levels to accompany their substantial growth in wealth (pp. 185-218).
To explain this, Diener and Oishi suggest that perhaps as income increases, desire for material goods also increases, leaving individuals with unmet wants. As the authors of this section admit, the relationship between income and SWB is complex and is affected by other variables such as overall feelings of well-being, and negative factors that come with increased economic prosperity, such as crime (p. 204). This example reflects the complexity of cross-cultural research, echoed by Diener and Suh in their “Introduction.”
The authors of this volume make a strong argument that measures of SWB do reflect cultural values and norms, although they suggest restraint in interpretation of the data. Methodological concerns are raised addressing the comparability of responses on similar measures across cultures, the effectiveness of translations of the instruments into different languages, and the meaning of concepts across cultures. Further considerations include conclusions about causality, sampling, and situational factors that may have an influence on reports of SWB. The authors focus on these issues that have been discussed since the beginning of cross-cultural research, including the validity of translated measures. (7) Despite such limitations, the chapters are based heavily on empirical data and cite previous studies to support the value of culture as a predictor of SWB. The scope of the research effort is considerable; many studies reported in this text were conducted in more than thirty-five countries with thousands of participants.
Diener and Suh have compiled an extensive collection of empirical studies on culture and SWB. If read with the caution recommended by the editors, this text provides a strong review of the many variables that may influence individuals’ perceptions of quality of life. More research needs to be conducted in order to make judgments about cultures based on SWB, but this book is a substantial contribution to understanding the role of culture as it relates to individual experience.
(1) Harry C. Triandis, Kwook Leung, Marcelo J. Villareal, and Felicia L. Clack, “Allocentric vs. Idiocentric Tendencies: Convergent and Discriminant Validation,” Journal of Research in Personality 19 (December 1985):395-415.
(2) See, for example, Harry C. Triandis and Michele J. Gelfund, “Converging Measurement of Horizontal and Vertical Individualism and Collectivism,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74 (January 1998): 118-28.
(3) Ed Diener, Marissa Diener, and Carol Diener, “Factors Predicting the Subjective Wellbeing of Nations,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69 (November 1995): 851-64.
(4) See, for example, David A. Armor and Shelley E. Taylor, “Situated Optimism: Specific Outcome Expectancies and Self-regulation,” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 30, ed. Mark P. Zanna (San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1998), 309-79.
(5) Jonathon D. Brown, The Self (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998).
(6) See, for example, Carl R. Rogers, Client-Centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implication, and Theory (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965).
(7) See, for example, David Matsumoto, Culture and Psychology (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000), 105-36.
A. Celeste Gaia, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Psychology
Emory & Henry College
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