Are Happiness and Self-Esteem Tied to Culture?

If you’ve ever been to a foreign country and felt like you just didn’t fit in, there may be a deep cultural personality mismatch going on–and not because of the language barrier. Having a sense of satisfaction with life and overall happiness can be deeply affected by the place you come from. According to research from the Association for Psychological Science, happiness, well-being, and positive emotions are intricately tied to the culture in which we live.

The research, which involved two studies, builds on an established person-culture match idea that says people are happier when free to pursue goals that match their own personality traits. Taking this notion a step further, the new study suggests that living in a society that values a given personal trait, such as being extroverted, creates a validating environment that supports self-esteem.

In the first study, 6,224 subjects from 26 societies — from America to Turkey – filled out self-reports to gauge happiness in relation to cultural setting. The study measured the extroversion trait against three indicators of self-esteem—subjective well-being, positive emotions and life happiness. The study also assessed extroversion in the society as a whole, asking if the existence of the societal level trait influenced personal well-being. Results showed that in places where extroversion was culturally valued, people who were also extroverted reported higher rates of well-being, positive emotions and overall happiness.

The second study involved student self-reports that replicated the first study, and went further to examine the traits locomotion (how much internal drive you have) and promotion (your ability to adapt). Locomotion indicators on the report included things like “I don’t mind doing things even if they involve extra effort,” and promotion measures included “Do you often do well at different things that you try?” Results of this second study also supported the person-culture match concept. The positive individual relationship between promotion and locomotion focus and self-esteem was higher in countries with focus on these traits at the societal level.

When happiness and positive emotions are intertwined in culture, then uprooting someone into a different society, can come with shocks that negatively impact self-esteem. In the global context of increasingly mobile people, this study has far-reaching implications for companies relocating their personnel overseas, and for individuals moving within different social contexts.

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