The importance of cultural happiness

In June 2016’s Orient magazine Karen Schofield advocated that businesses should stop asking consumers rational questions and start focusing on understanding and measuring people’s happiness. In this article, Karen returns the topic to ask what the underlying drivers of happiness are, and are they the same across cultures?

This article was first published in Orient magazine, 27th June 2017


By Karen Schofield, Managing Director, Join the Dots


Our research with Manchester Business School and BJ Fogg from Stanford University demonstrated that brands which make people happy are more likely to be re-purchased, and – arguably more importantly – to become habitual purchases. But what sits beneath this: what are the underlying drivers of happiness, and are they the same across cultures?


The impact of culture and happiness


While we know that the pursuit of happiness is a universal human trait that crosses nations, we hypothesised that different cultures may vary in the ways happiness is attained and fulfilled. There have been many debates within psychology and cultural studies about whether human motivation is largely ‘culturally-free’ or ‘culturally-embedded’, and it’s our belief that regarding happiness as a completely universal trait that is culturally-free is too simplistic. Although certain human needs are almost universal, the expression, attainment, and ways of fulfilling those needs can be quite culturally-specific. Psychologists have shown that culture has a very big impact on the way we think [1] .What we value [2], and how we behave [3] affect the way we approach concerns that are universal.


What drives happiness?


There has been much research on the factors that most influence happiness and well-being. The most influential is that of the discipline’s founder. Seligman’s PERMA theory suggests that happiness arises most from five well-being constructs: Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Purpose, and Accomplishment [4].

However, much happiness research to date has been conducted in the USA and specific markets in Europe, and frameworks often do not take into account cultural specificities. This goes far beyond the simplistic understanding of categorising societies as individualistic or collectivistic, and requires us to understand the reasons and causes of cultural differences and how they influence mind-sets and behaviours to maximise happiness. For example, experiences of positive emotions can vary culturally, as seen in how Americans associate feelings of happiness with personal factors, while Japanese associate those feelings with an entire society’s harmony [5]. However, this doesn’t mean that positive hedonic experiences through personal achievements do not contribute to happiness in cultures that prioritise social harmony.


So, subtle differences in happiness between societies require cultural contextualisation [6]. Cultural understanding must be unpacked in order to fully understand the nuances which shape people and societies. There are others who have suggested more factors are as important as the five delineated by Seligman. Indeed, an academic study conducted in Malaysia in 2014 recognised that health was the fifth highest driver that made people happy [7]. Taking this into account, we have developed a set of happiness drivers to suit a broader international market. We have taken the opportunity to re-align our existing drivers to mirror those proposed by Seligman, and included two new drivers of Health and Security.



The first five drivers are:


Positive Emotions. Positive emotions encompasses hedonic feelings such as happiness, pleasure, and comfort. These emotions are frequently seen as connected to positive outcomes, such as longer life and healthier social relationships. Life provides many challenges and potential stresses. Those who are able to approach them more positively can alleviate many of the physiological negatives associated with stress and genuinely live a happier life.


Engagement. Engagement refers to a deep psychological connection (e.g. being interested, engaged, and absorbed) to a particular activity, organisation, or cause. Complete levels of engagement are known by psychologists as a state of flow, i.e. a state of single-minded immersion or an optimal state of concentration on an intrinsically motivating task. Awareness of time may fade, and positive thought and feeling may be absent during the flow state.


Achievement. Across many cultures, making progress towards one’s goals and achieving superior results can lead to both external recognition and a personal sense of accomplishment. Goal setting can not only help people achieve things but also provides a sense of purpose. Although achievement can be via formal learning such as education or at work, it can be any type of challenge where you learn something new.


Relationships. Relationships not only include feelings of being cared for by loved ones, and being satisfied with one’s social network, but also feelings of integration with society, cultural heritage, or a community. Much of our experience as humans revolves around other people. Support from social relationships has been linked to less depression and psychopathology, better physical health, lower mortality, and other positive outcomes. Feeling close to and valued by other people/society is a fundamental human need and one that contributes to functioning well in the world.


Meaning. Meaning refers to having a sense of purpose and direction in life, and feeling connected to something larger than the self. In many countries this is facilitated by cultural traditions and religious faiths. In more secular societies, meaning can be provided by a sense of community or other goals or perspectives. There is evidence from many cultures that a virtuous life also enhances well-being. More specifically, giving and helping others are linked with happiness.


The first of our new drivers is Health. Suffering, pain and general poor health all adversely impact on feelings of happiness and well-being. Research has shown that exercise can improve mental well-being, and there is substantial evidence that subjective well-being is related to better self-reported health, longevity, and reduced pain [8]. The reverse is also true – where the key to a healthier life can be shaped by positive life circumstances, such as emotional vitality, optimism, and having a supportive network of relationships, conversely, lower happiness as result of other factors can impact on physical health.


The second is Security. The factor at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often ignored by many well-being researchers in developed markets. However when basic security is challenged in some way, it can have a major impact on well-being. Security encompasses everything from living in a peaceful environment without fear through to absence of financial or economic woes. It can also extend as far as concepts such as freedom of speech and political freedom. In developing countries around the world, security is fundamental, and still a concern. Even in Europe, aspects of security are beginning to be an issue as a wave of migration is displacing millions of citizens [9]. In developed Asian markets like Singapore, security plays a huge part in the nation’s psychology – there’s always a survival need that drives the nation’s growth and success. This corroborates with a separate study conducted by Deakin University in Australia that investigates the ‘golden triangle’ of happiness, where good relationships, financial security, and a sense of purpose are key to being happy [10].


Using happiness to optimise brand performance


Happiness is a constant work in progress as it goes through re-evaluation and never-ending negotiation and adjustments. Yet the deepest core needs and values stay anchored. These are the core values which form the motivating drivers, giving meaning and purpose to the actions and lives of people.


Brands which can make consumers happy when they’re being experienced are more likely to be re-purchased and – importantly – become habitual purchases. But while happiness is a universal concept, understanding how cultural differences interact with the underlying drivers of what make people happy is key to optimising brand performance and driving re-purchase across different markets.


[1] Nisbett, R.E. (2003). The geography of thought.

[2] Hofstede, G. (1980). Motivation, leadership, and organization: do American theories apply abroad? Organizational dynamics9(1), pp.42-63.

[3] Brislin, R.W. and Bhawuk, D.P. (1999). Cross-cultural training: Research and innovations. Social psychology and cultural context, pp.205-216.

[4] Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A new understanding of happiness, well-being-and how to achieve them. Nicholas Brealey Pub.

[5] Uchida, Y. and Ogihara, Y. (2012). Personal or interpersonal construal of happiness: A cultural psychological perspective. International Journal of Wellbeing2(4).

[6] Mathews, Gordon. (2012). Happiness, culture, and context. International Journal of Wellbeing, 2(4), 299-312.

[7] Khaw, D. and Kern, M. (2014). A Cross-Cultural Comparison of the PERMA Model of Well-being. Berkeley, p.10.

[8] Diener, E. and Chan, M.Y. (2011). Happy people live longer: Subjective well‐being contributes to health and longevity. Applied Psychology: Health and WellBeing3(1), pp.1-43.

[9] Foundation for Future Studies (2016) Deutsche Tourismusanalyse: Urlaubsfrust statt Reiselust. Foundation for Future Studies Newsletter  Ausgabe 267, 37. Jahrgang,

[10] Capic, Tanja, Cummins, Robert. et al. (2016) Happiness at a high in 21st Century. Retrieved from:



About the author


Karen Schofield has overall responsibility for running the Singapore operations, including sales and business development, managing the business P&L, overseeing client relationships and research/consultancy projects, and managing the Join the Dots Singapore team. She has specialised in consumer psychology, consumer journeys and decision making for a number of years and has a particular interest in the application of behavioural sciences, creative thinking and design. She developed Join the Dots’ unique framework for understanding consumer decision making and is a strong believer in making sure research projects are future-facing, culturally relevant and drive business change. Karen is a regular speaker and presenter at conferences and industry events and was part of an award-winning session (‘best overall contribution to conference’) at Impact 2015 in the UK where she spoke with our Consumer Trends Director, Kelly McKnight, about why brands should be measuring happiness rather than satisfaction, and the psychological links between happiness and habit formation. Karen has been at Join the Dots for around 9 years, having previously spent time in the business as Innovations Director and as a Research Director.


About Join the Dots


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