Cultural Similarities and Variations in the Conceptions of Happiness and Unhappiness: A Comparison Between Italy and Honduras

Psychology and Developing Societies

Investigating how individuals define and conceptualise psychological states is effective for gaining information on the cultural models that affect ordinary people’s everyday life (
Bruner, 1990). This especially holds when considering folk theories of psychological concepts that include ethical and moral content, as in the case of happiness. As Lu and Gilmour noted ‘culture can be a major force constructing the conception of happiness and consequently shaping its subjective experiences. In particular, members of different cultures may hold diverse views of happiness, covering definitions, nature, meaning and ways to strive for subjective well-being’. In other words, it is arguable that the ‘cultural construal of happiness’ has an effect on how ordinary people both conceptualise and pursue their positive experiences. In the present article, we focus on the relationship between culture and the ways both happiness and unhappiness are conceptualised.

Although empirical research on the folk psychology of happiness is still lacking, the number of cultural studies devoted to this topic has gradually increased since the inception of positive psychology. In fact, researchers have collected data from various countries across the world, including the USA, Canada, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, India, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and a handful of nations from Europe and Latin America.

Most of the studies cited earlier endorse a cross-national approach, contrasting countries which are very different from a cultural, economic and political standpoint. Overall, the results from these studies revealed that participants from all the five continents linked their idea of happiness to key aspects of their life. These included having harmonious relationships with other people (especially family members and friends), experiencing positive emotions and feelings, and being healthy.

Along with these cross-national commonalities, participants’ conceptions of happiness were also found to vary according to the cultural orientation of their society. Participants living in individualistic countries attributed greater importance to self-actualisation, personal success and hedonic activities. On the other hand, participants from collectivistic cultures assigned greater importance to social support networks and, in a few cases, to the political situation of their country.

According to various scholars, differences in the conceptions of happiness between individualistic and collectivistic countries are grounded in historically rooted ideologies, religious attitudes, ethical norms and social practices. All these factors interact in a complex way in people’s daily lives. Isolating their distinctive effects can therefore be quite difficult for happiness researchers.

Some intriguing findings emerged from the analysis of the salience scores associated with the various happiness and unhappiness sources which were mentioned by the participants in both cultural groups. Overall, the Honduran conceptions of happiness and unhappiness only partially reflected the collectivistic orientation of the Honduran society. With regard to the happiness concept, the Honduran participants placed more emphasis on family, success, hobbies and interests, and pleasant events than their Italian counterparts. In a similar vein, family problems, failure, money problems and unpleasant events were considered as more salient unhappiness sources among the Hondurans than the Italians. Interestingly, the analysis of citation frequency of happiness sources also revealed that 31.4% of the Honduran sample incorporated faith into their happiness conceptions. However, only 1% of the Italian sample mentioned this source. Read the complete article published in Volume 33, Issue 2, 2021.