Individualistic vs. Collectivistic Perceptions of Happiness

DCIM100GOPROGOPR1088.JPGJulia Theilen 

What is happiness? This is a question I asked myself several times during and after our study trip to China. Whether we were visiting ancient temples in Beijing or the world’s fourth largest statue Guan Yin of the South Sea of Sanya, lighting incense sticks for prayers I always found myself somehow silently wishing for happiness. Besides this, we had the opportunity to visit the End of the Earth, the Edge of the Sky and the Rim of the Sea – a meaningful spot at the Southern coast of Hainan where couples go to have a very happy married life.

To me, coming from the West, aspects of happiness are love, self-fulfillment and health, for example. But what does happiness mean to the many others, mainly Chinese, who were internally praying around me?

One’s perception of happiness basically goes back to whether one grew up in an individualistic or collectivistic culture. I was born and raised in Germany, a rather individualistic culture and now, I live in the US, which is probably the most individualistic society of all. Therefore, my understanding of happiness is likely to differ from the Chinese understanding of happiness, that is influenced by a collectivistic cultural background. While individualistic cultures mainly focus on the success of the individual, collectivistic cultures put the success and goals of the group above the personal ones: Common good over the individual good. This explains why, for example, the Chinese highly value and respect family. Deeply rooted in Chinese society is also the collectivistic concept of interdependency within social relationships. In an individualistic culture, however, people strive for their own success and it is almost considered shameful to heavily rely or make oneself dependent on others – people aim to be independent. I personally think it is worth mentioning how these different ways of thinking also affect Eastern and Western perceptions of social relationships: A study found that Chinese students emphasize the merging of two selves to achieve interdependence, while American students emphasize the negotiation of an accommodation between two people who remain independent (Huffington Post, 2015). To me, this finding was a great insight and allowed me to better understand where my own thinking originates in and it made me realize that I should just as well be aware of other understandings of relationships that people have in this world.

Reading about the collectivistic and contemporary Chinese conception of happiness, I found out that it was formed by three different and sometimes even contradictory strains of influence: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. These three philosophical systems have been synthesized and reinterpreted by ordinary people in contemporary China and merged into a folk theory of happiness (Lu, 2001). According to the results of an exploratory study conducted by Lu (2001), this includes the following definitions of happiness: happiness as a mental state of satisfaction and contentment, happiness as positive feelings, happiness as a harmonious homeostasis, happiness as achievement and hope and happiness as freedom from ill-being. Interesting to note is that another study that compared Chinese and American understandings of happiness found slight differences in these definitions amongst the two groups. For example, few American students referred to harmony or balance in defining happiness while Chinese students characterized happiness as a harmonious homeostasis within the self (Huffington Post, 2015). Moreover, American students’ descriptions of happiness were rather individualistic, focusing on shaping the external world, such as self-autonomy and positive self-evaluations. In contrast to this, Chinese students’ definitions of happiness were communal and focused on shaping the self through self-cultivation, mind-work and positive evaluations of the self by others (Huffington Post, 2015).

My personal conclusion of these valuable insights into Eastern and Western culture is that it is crucial to learn about other cultures and philosophies to increase mutual understanding within any kind of social relationships. Where do different ways of thinking in collectivistic or individualistic cultures come from? They simply reflect the prevailing philosophies that have been prominent in different regions over time. While Western philosophers emphasized freedom and independence, Eastern philosophers like Confucius emphasized relationships and obligations within groups. Taoism focused on concepts of unity, for example.

History, geography and culture can subtly change how we all think; our thinking is shaped by where we grew up and live and hence, there is a great global diversity of thinking. I believe that greater awareness of this diversity can help us all understand our own minds and each other a little better. Our trip to China was a very enriching experience as it allowed me to develop this awareness of and understanding for Chinese culture which inspired me to learn from it and critically reflect on my own individualistic way of thinking. However, I feel that both cultures can learn from each other’s mistakes and achievements as they both contain positive as well as negative aspects.


Huffington Post (2015). How Americans and Chinese Think About Happiness Differently. Retrieved January 21, 2017, from

Lu, L. (2001). Understanding Happiness: A Look into the Chinese Folk Psychology. Journal of Happiness Studies 2(4), p. 407-432. DOI: 10.1023/A:1013944228205


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