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interview

Is happiness influenced by culture?


Gaël Brulé

- Global

- Jan 19 2016


Gaël Brulé

Research fellow at the Sodexo Institute for Quality of Life

Gaël Brulé, PhD student at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam and research fellow at the Sodexo Institute for Quality of Life, explains why cultural differences are of major importance in the field of happiness studies. 

You argue for the inclusion of the cultural differences in happiness studies; could you explain why and what you mean by this?

Many studies in the vast field of happiness research are implicitly based on the assumption that culture does not matter, that up-bringing and genes produce various levels of happiness, and happiness produces various societies, but culture as such is almost always absent from the equation. However, when we look at how individuals respond to happiness questions in different countries, it is hard not to acknowledge that there are substantial differences between nations, or at least between large cultural areas.

Why is this so? Why is culture absent from happiness studies?

In part, I think it is because culture is seen as a difficult ‘fuzzy’ concept. Happiness is largely studied by economists and psychologists but culture is rarely their main focus.  Economists focus on growth and institutional factors, psychologists focus on personality traits or characteristics. Culture is the field of sociologists and anthropologists, and they are currently not as represented as psychologists and economists in happiness studies. 

Can you give an example of where culture matters in happiness studies?

I have been working on the relatively low levels of happiness reported in France. Beyond institutional factors that can explain some of the phenomenon (education, organization, freedom), there are also some cultural effects that seem to moderate happiness in France. More specifically, there seems to be a tendency in France for people to systematically respond in the middle of the scale. This is true for happiness questions as well as for others, it reflects a systematic response type. As it happens, this effect is not observed in many comparable European nations. This is just one example but there are many different effects in other large cultural areas that all present different patterns, such as extreme responses in Latin American or Arab populations. Culture is a part of happiness, as one would expect, and some cultural matrices are more conducive to happiness than others.

So, what do you suggest are the implications for the field of happiness studies?

I think that the field of study would enrich itself by including culture as part of happiness. Institutions matter, personality traits matter and culture matters. Let’s acknowledge this and see how it can fit in the field. Happiness is complex and multi-layered; let’s not forget the layer of culture or we will miss an essential dimension of happiness in the best case, or our findings and conclusions will simply be wrong in the worst case.

What is the view of the Sodexo Institute for Quality of Life on this matter?

The Institute recognizes and appreciates the plurality of forms of happiness. At the moment, we are working on a project to understand better the different ways that quality of life-a wider concept than happiness-is conceived in different cultural environments. We want to see how it is related to values, religions, perspectives of time, identity, and much more. In the long run, this is crucial for our understanding of how improving Quality of Life leads to the progress of individuals – 420,000 employees and 75 million customers alike – and the performance of organisations, whether our own Group or our clients in 80 countries and their cultures around the world.

For more, please contact Sodexo Institute for Quality of Life

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