The importance of cultural happiness JOIN THE DOTS

This report describes Join the Dots’ unique happiness framework for cross-cultural understanding. We show that although the factors that drive well-being are fairly similar across the globe, the way that people are seeking happiness is not only very culturally specific but also continually evolving. Successful brands therefore need to be not only very culturally aware when marketing but closely attuned to what makes their consumers flourish currently in every market they operate in.


Over the last three years, Join the Dots have spent a lot of time and energy working on happiness. Not only have we found it a powerful framework for helping our clients but we now use it internally to enhance the lives of our employees, and with that we are also convinced, the quality of their work.

What started off as a concept to help us explain consumer trends just in the UK has now morphed into something much bigger and more potent. The pursuit of happiness is a universal human trait that crosses all nations – even the factors that enhance it seem the same everywhere. However, culture has a major impact on the way happiness is attained and the ways it is fulfilled.

This has a major impact for brands in this ever more multinational marketplace. Knowing about cultural aspects and how they interact with human motivation is key to optimising brand performance. Furthermore in the fast changing world in which we live, having one’s finger on the pulse of consumer motivation is critical.

This report provides an introduction to our framework of cultural happiness.

- Pete Comley, Founder & Board Director, Join the Dots


As we noted in the last Comley Report, research into happiness is a fairly recent phenomenon, despite the basic concept being discussed as far back as Epicurus and the ancient Greeks. Twentieth century psychologists have come on a long way from the first attempts to look at motivation from the likes of Maslow and his hierarchy of needs (Maslow, 1943).

The term Positive Psychology was only coined by Martin Seligman right at the end of the last century. Since, it has spawned an enormous body of research over the past two decades. Our last report looked at this in detail and showed how critical happiness is for human flourishing. In it we examined how subjective wellbeing and associated constructs such as life satisfaction, happiness, and optimism have numerous positive effects on health, success, education, and other important life outcomes (Diener & Chan, 2011).

We also looked at the implications of happiness for marketing. The happiness paradigm has parallels for brands. We showed that brands that can make people even just a little happier, have the ability to increase brand loyalty, sales and profit.


There has been much research on the factors that most influence happiness and wellbeing. The most influential is that of the discipline’s founder. Seligman’s (2011) PERMA theory suggests that flourishing arises most from five wellbeing constructs: Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment.

Subsequently others have suggested that other factors may also be important. For example, there is substantial evidence that subjective wellbeing is related to better self-reported health, longevity, and reduced pain (Diener & Chan, 2011). Indeed a recent study conducted in Malaysia asking people what made them happy (open question) showed health as the fifth highest driver (Khaw & Kern, 2014).

What is wellbeing or happiness to you? (Malaysia)

The same study also shows security was import to some, yet this factor was absent from Seligman’s analysis. This raises an interesting cultural perspective. Much of the happiness research to date has been conducted in the USA and in other developed markets such as Europe. It is quite likely that basic security was largely taken for granted in such cultures, but is in fact still a concern in many developing ones and any war-torn country. Even in Europe, aspects of security are beginning to be an issue again as a wave of migration is displacing millions of citizens (Foundation for Future Studies, 2016).

Given this, Join the Dots have decided to relaunch their original happiness framework including both Health & Security as new drivers. At the same time, we have taken the opportunity to re-align our existing drivers to mirror those proposed by Seligman. The resulting seven happiness drivers become:

Security. The factor at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often ignored by many wellbeing researchers in developed markets. However when basic security is challenged in some way, it can have a major impact on wellbeing. 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.

Health. Suffering, pain and general poor health all adversely impact on feelings of happiness and wellbeing. Research also shows that exercise can improve mental wellbeing. There is also a growing body of evidence that a healthy diet can also impact directly on wellbeing, particularly for children. Conversely lower happiness as a result of other factors can impact on physical health.

Positive Emotions. Positive emotion 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 that are able to approach them more positively can alleviate many of the physiological negatives that are 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, organization, 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 wellbeing. More specifically, giving and helping others are linked with happiness.


There is debate within psychology as to whether human motivation is largely “culturally-free” or “culturally embedded”. Culture-free advocates believe that humans' strengths are valued universally and that the pursuit of happiness is fairly similar across all cultures. A key study supporting this position was published by Dahlsgaard et al (2005). They reviewed all the published works on the subject and concluded that there were six universal virtues that exist across cultures: courage, justice, humanity, temperance, wisdom, and transcendence. They argued that these virtues are represented in ancient texts of the major religions i.e. Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and even from Athenian scholars.

Others (e.g. Wong, 2013) have shown there to be common basic human drivers such as the needs for meaning (Baumeister, 2005), self-determination (Ryan & Deci, 2000), happiness and the good life (Seligman, 2011). Furthermore happiness studies comparing specific cultures have always found commonalities. One comparing Japan and European/US cultures (Uchida & Ogihara,2012) found that three types of descriptions were commonly observed in both cultures:

  1. General hedonic states (e.g. joy, excitement, and positive attitude)
  2. Personal achievement (e.g. getting a good grade, getting a job)
  3. Interpersonal harmony (e.g. getting along with others, having a party for a friend).

However what is clear in such comparisons is that there are also cultural differences. For example, the latter study highlighted that life satisfaction was higher in Japan when people complied with social norms and fulfilled relational obligations (particularly reverence towards the old).

It is 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 can have a very big impact on the way we think (Nisbett, 2003), what we value (Hofstede, 1980) and how we behave (Brislin, 1999). These differences are perpetuated not just via formal religions but through other practices, institutions, and other channels in society.

There is a marked difference between some Eastern and Western cultures. Westerners tend to seek rewards on more of a physical plane, while some Easterners seek to transcend the physical plane to a spiritual one. Happiness in Western society is usually defined by factors such as gaining self-esteem, self-confidence, being materially and financially comfortable, being successful, being attractive, being equal, being treated with respect, being able to exercise one’s rights and enjoy pleasures and comforts of life (Laungani, 2006). In many Eastern cultures, happiness can be often defined more as an internal state of mind; being in peace; doing one’s duties; keeping others happy; being responsible and respectful to oneself, family and society; and enjoying life as it goes with oneself, family and others. For example for Hindus, happiness comes from following one’s dharma (duties); for Muslims, it comes from obeying the wish of Allah (God); for Chinese, it comes from balancing Yin and Yang (opposite life forces).

That being said, studies by such culturally-specific psychologists tend to focus strongly on the differences and ignore the subtlety that nearly all the factors observed as driving happiness in East and West can be observed in both cultures – it's just a matter of degree. Moreover the world is becoming ever more globalised.

The internet has significantly enhanced a process of convergence. Join the Dots’ recent report comparing Millennials in China, Mexico and the UK, showed how the influence on national cultures are being eroded by a new supra-national worldwide culture. One can but speculate how this might evolve over the coming century, but our view is that longer-term specific country culture is going to have an ever smaller impact on behaviour.

However currently we feel that understanding the culture is a key aspect of understanding a person’s route to happiness. To echo the words of Unilever’s BV Pradeep & Namita Mediratta (2016): “Emotional engagement is deeply linked to cultural resonance”.


In the last Comley report, we proposed a model for consumer trends based on happiness. In this report, we take it a stage further and have built in a cultural lens. We use this understanding of the values and beliefs in a country to permit us to see how the basic happiness drivers are being interpreted in that culture. The lens highlights the subtle differences in the way people around the world have come to interpret the drivers, flourish, and achieve enhanced wellbeing.

However how people are seeking happiness at any one moment in time is continually changing. It is doing so for two key reasons. Firstly, macro factors in the environment in which we live are constantly changing. These can be anything from the effects of immigration, to the prolonged impact of the global recession to advances in technology. These macro factors are culture specific, although not surprisingly, there is often commonalities between countries, due to the interconnected nature of the world today. The second factor is hedonic adaptation. What makes us happy today or tomorrow might not the same in a month or a year. Human happiness is continually evolving.

It is the confluence of all of these factors that manifests itself in the consumer trends we see all around us. For each country we have examined, there seems to be a different story on how consumers are seeking to achieve happiness from each of the seven drivers. Sometimes the story is subtly altered, other times a driver may be expressed very differently. It depends partly on the cultural heritage and partly on macro factors at play in that country.


We strongly believe that determining what motivates human happiness is a key factor in being able to successfully understand the consumer. I hope this report has given you an appreciation of the importance of culture in understanding what drives people in different countries. We have found that having a good cultural lens to examine the consumer has been essential in allowing us to derive genuine insights for our clients.

I hope this report has whetted your appetite. If you would like to know more, speak to the Culture & Trends Team at Join the Dots.

Pete Comley


Baumeister, R.F., 2005. The cultural animal: Human nature, meaning, and social life (p. 215). New York: Oxford University Press.

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

Dahlsgaard, K., Peterson, C. and Seligman, M.E., 2005. Shared virtue: The convergence of valued human strengths across culture and history. Review of general psychology, 9(3), p.203.

Diener, E. and Chan, M.Y., 2011. Happy people live longer: Subjective well‐being contributes to health and longevity. Applied Psychology: Health and Well‐Being, 3(1), pp.1-43.

Foundation for Future Studies, 2016. Deutsche Tourismusanalyse: Urlaubsfrust statt Reiselust. Foundation for Future Studies Newsletter Ausgabe 267, 37. Jahrgang, 17. Februar 2016

Hofstede, G., 1980. Motivation, leadership, and organization: do American theories apply abroad?. Organizational dynamics, 9(1), pp.42-63.

Khaw, D. and Kern, M., 2014. A Cross-Cultural Comparison of the PERMA Model of Well-being. at Berkeley, p.10.

Laungani, P.D., 2006. Understanding cross-cultural psychology: Eastern and Western perspectives. Sage.

Maslow, A.H., 1943. A theory of human motivation. Psychological review,50(4), p.370.

Nisbett, R.E., 2003. The geography of thought.

Pradeep, B.V. and Mediratta, N., 2016. Consumers don’t exist but People do!, MRS Conference.

Ryan, R.M. and Deci, E.L., 2001. On happiness and human potentials: A review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Annual review of psychology, 52(1), pp.141-166.

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

Uchida, Y. and Ogihara, Y., 2012. Personal or interpersonal construal of happiness: A cultural psychological perspective. International Journal of Wellbeing, 2(4).

Wong, P.T., 2013. Cross-cultural positive psychology. Encyclopaedia of Cross-cultural Psychology. Oxford, UK: Wiley Blackwell Publishers.

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