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Eastern Conceptualizations of Happiness: Fundamental Differences with

Western Views

Article  in  Journal of Happiness Studies · April 2014

DOI: 10.1007/s10902-013-9431-1

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R E V I E W A R T I C L E

Eastern Conceptualizations of Happiness: Fundamental
Differences with Western Views

Mohsen Joshanloo

Published online: 21 March 2013
� Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Abstract The purpose of this review is to compare and contrast western and eastern
conceptualizations of happiness and optimal functioning. Towards this end, accounts of

happiness and optimal functioning provided in western philosophy and scientific psy-

chology are compared with those in some eastern schools of thought (namely, Hinduism,

Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Sufism). Six fundamental differences in western

and eastern conceptualizations of the good life are identified and discussed in the context of

broader psychological theory. It is hoped that this theoretical analysis will stimulate more

culturally informed research among happiness researchers.

Keywords Happiness � The good life � Optimal functioning � Culture � Eastern traditions

1 Introduction

The current literature on happiness and well-being has been criticised by many (e.g.,

Christopher 1999; Joshanloo 2013; Lu and Gilmour 2006; Uchida and Kitayama 2009) on

the grounds that it takes a culture-free stance. It has been argued that contemporary western

notions of happiness and optimal functioning have their roots in western old and new

streams of thought. Among many, Coan (1977) and Hwang (2009) argue that modern

psychiatry and psychology are features of contemporary western civilization, reflecting

western traditions and ways of living. The western understanding of the self and happiness

rest on taken-for-granted and deeply held presuppositions dominant in the contemporary

West. For example, Christopher and Hickinbottom (2008) contend that mainstream wes-

tern psychology is largely based on the tenets of liberal individualism, which encompasses

a notion of fixed self with clear boundaries with the non-self. To date, most of the research

on happiness has been guided by these western conceptualizations and have relied on

M. Joshanloo (&)
Victoria University of Wellington & Centre for Applied Cross-Cultural Research,
Wellington, New Zealand
e-mail: [email protected]

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J Happiness Stud (2014) 15:475–493
DOI 10.1007/s10902-013-9431-1

Author’s personal copy

western instruments. Unfortunately, western theories and instruments are applied across

cultures, at the expense of ignoring indigenous frameworks.

The present review is an attempt to partially tackle these drawbacks, and provide a

reference for future empirical research. The purpose is to examine fundamental differences

between the eastern and western conceptualizations of happiness at a conceptual level. To

this end, western notions of happiness will be briefly reviewed first. Secondly, views of

eastern traditions will be investigated. Finally, six fundamental differences between eastern

and western notions of happiness will be highlighted with the aim of providing an inte-

grated understanding of cultural differences in the conceptions of happiness.

1.1 Western Conceptualization of Mental Well-Being

With regard to the western notions of happiness, it is necessary to touch on the distinction

between two widely accepted traditions of analysis in the study of well-being: hedonic and

eudaimonic. The primary difference between the eudaimonic and hedonic conceptualiza-

tion of well-being is that the former is premised on virtues, skills, and positive functioning,

whereas the latter is premised on pleasure and positive feelings (Keyes and Annas 2009).

Eudaimonia was the main word for happiness and positive functioning in Ancient Greek

philosophy. Hedonism as a way of achieving happiness received very little attention in

premodern eras. Only recently, hedonism has gained popularity and credit mainly in

western cultures (Christopher 1999; Tatarkiewicz 1976).

In philosophy, hedonism is defined as ‘‘an ethical position which claims that pleasure or

happiness is the highest or most intrinsic good in life, and that people should pursue as

much pleasure and as little pain as possible’’ (Bunnin and Yu 2004, pp. 298–299). This

position has been advocated, for example, by Aristippus and the utilitarians. In line with

this philosophical position, psychological hedonism holds that ‘‘human actions are deter-

mined by the desire to secure pleasure and to avoid pain’’ (Bunnin and Yu 2004, p. 299).

Among hedonic-oriented psychologists, well-being is conceived as identical to subjective

well-being (Diener 2012) which is dependent on the pleasure and pain experiences of an

individual over a certain period of time (Ryan and Deci 2001). Subjective well-being is

operationalized and assessed as a predominance of positive over negative affect (i.e., affect

balance) as well as a global satisfaction with life based on an individual’s self-chosen

standards (Diener 1984). It has been argued that the dominant view of happiness in the

contemporary West is basically hedonistic (e.g., Belliotti 2004; Christopher and Hickinbottom

2008; Haybron 2008; Joshanloo 2013; McMahon 2008; Schwartz 2009; Tatarkiewicz 1976;

Triandis 1995; Triandis et al. 1990).

The eudaimonistic tradition, on the other hand, posits that a human being can live a

good life only when they actualize their potential rather than by pursuing pleasure pro-

duced by good feelings or satisfaction of bodily needs (Devettere 2002). The most influ-

ential advocate of this notion in the West is Aristotle, who decisively rejected hedonism as

a way of achieving happiness: ‘‘The many, the most vulgar, seemingly conceive the good

and happiness as pleasure, and hence they also like the life of gratification. Here they

appear completely slavish, since the life they decide on is a life for grazing animals’’

(Aristotle 1985, p. 7). Eudaimonia is a life of activity in accordance with virtue (Annas

2000). Eudaimonism is concerned with actualizing one’s potential and capacities as a

human being (Ryan and Deci 2001). Such traits as self-esteem, meaning in life, optimism,

enjoyment of activities as personally expressive, and autonomy have been emphasized in

eudaimonic theories in the West (Ryan and Deci 2001; Ryff 1989; Waterman et al. 2010).

Some of these values are consistent with the dominant western ethos of individualism.

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In short, contemporary western culture and western psychological theory define the

concept of well-being and a good life mainly based on positive affectivity and hedonic

balance (as further discussed later on). Contemporary western theories of happiness and

optimal functioning also focus partly on individualistic virtues such as self-determination,

autonomy, self-esteem, mastery, and control (Christopher 1999; Christopher and Hickinbottom

2008). In the following sections, a number of eastern notions of happiness are examined to set

the stage for a comprehensive comparison of eastern and western concepts of happiness.

1.2 Eastern Conceptualizations of Mental Well-Being

The notions of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sufism about happiness

will be reviewed in the following sections. These belief systems are chosen for the pur-

poses of the current analysis because they are dominant worldviews in Asia, and exert a

far-reaching influence on the way people in this continent think and behave (Hwang 2009).

Confucianism is believed to be at the root of the traditional system of thought shared by

many East Asian cultures, although people in these regions are to various degrees influ-

enced by other traditions such as Taoism and Buddhism. Hinduism is the predominant

religion of India which has influenced many other religions such as Buddhism and Sufism.

Sufism is influential in India, Pakistan, and the Persian world (e.g., Iran, Tajikistan,

Afghanistan, and other Persian-speaking regions). Sufism has become fully integrated into

these people’s religious lives affecting their ways of thinking and behaving (for a review

see Joshanloo and Rastegar 2012). I present a review of the notions of happiness proposed

by each of these Asian traditions below.

1.3 Hinduism

Hinduism has a long history and myriad of traditions and approaches that are impossible to

be fully covered here. I only try to offer a rough sketch of Hinduism’s basic ideas and the

aspects that are more characteristic of Hindu religious thought, although it is possible to

find alternative views on any of the points discussed here.

The pursuit of salvation in Hinduism starts with discovering the true self. Hinduism

posits that the self consists of material and non-material aspects. The innermost non-

material self of each individual is called atman (Kim 1973; Klostermaier 2008). The

ultimate reality that embraces all beings and is at the heart of the universe is called

brahman. Brahman is the one supreme, universal spirit that is the ultimate ground of

everything. It is without form, indescribable, indefinable, and purely absolute (Kim

1973; Klostermaier 2008). Hinduism posits that at the most basic level, atman and

brahman are identical. But the material transient world veils this union. The ultimate

goal of Hindus is to realize this unity, or, stated otherwise, to become one with

brahman. In other words, they aim at attaining a high consciousness that can understand

that atman is indeed brahman
1
. Thus, obviously, unlike many western schools, Hin-

duism does not make a sharp distinction between humankind and the Divine (Younger

1972).

On this basis, the whole life is seen as a preparation for salvation in Hinduism. Salvation

involves transcending the ever-recurring cycle of life, death, and rebirth (called as

1
It should be noted that some perspectives in Hinduism speak of an ultimate distinction between

humankind and the Divine, and instead of unity they believe in an absolute devotion to and reliance on the
Divine (Narayanan 2004).

Eastern Conceptualizations of Happiness 477

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samsara). Salvation can be achieved by emancipating one’s self from all bodily bonds.

Only such a bodiless self is regarded as the true self. This self enjoys the highest state of

consciousness that is nonrestricted (Klostermaier 2008). Every person’s degree of bliss and

joy is believed to depend on how successful he or she is on the path towards such spiritual

knowledge of the self and brahman.

Spiritual and intuitive knowledge is highly emphasized in this doctrine. This sort of

knowledge is transformational, and is equated with becoming: ‘‘One who knows brahman

becomes brahman’’ (Klostermaier 2008, p. 110, italics in the original). True knowledge

should not be imparted by others. It should not be rational or intellectual. Instead, it should

come from one’s own experience, which as mentioned earlier, requires the development of

a high bodiless consciousness. This necessarily comes through moral development, freeing

the mind from selfish desires, and self-control (Kim 1973; Klostermaier 2008). Empha-

sizing mystical knowledge, oneness of existence, and the identification of the Divine and

humankind makes Hinduism a mystical religion. It does not come as any surprise that

Hinduism advocates a spiritual version of happiness.

In such a doctrine, true joy comes from contentment and peace of mind brought about

by constantly acknowledging that in everything dwells the Supreme Being (brahman). The

factors that contribute greatly to peace of mind are giving up all illegitimate desires,

avoiding greed, and attachment to transient and material objects (e.g., wealth and fame),

egotism, and anger, which are considered to be cardinal vices in Hinduism (Bhawuk 2010).

By avoiding these vices, one can be liberated from the material self, and ultimately become

one with brahman.

Hinduism emphasizes virtues and righteousness rather than hedonism in conceptual-

izing happiness (Shamasundar 2008). The concept of dharma is very important in defining

virtues in Hinduism. Dharma is the principle that governs the universe, society, and

individual lives—the supreme and all-encompassing regulatory principle. The whole world

and human affairs are controlled and operated by Dharma (Kim 1973; Narayanan 2004).

Humankind’s role in the Hindu worldview is to support this universal cosmic order

(Younger 1972). In general, virtue (personal or social, material or spiritual) in Hinduism

amounts to acting in accord with dharma (Salagame 2003). That is to uphold order in this

world and curb actions which may disrupt the soul’s harmony with cosmic and societal

order. For example, human behaviour should never lead to the disruption of the vegetable,

animal, or heavenly realms. Cardinal virtues of Hinduism include gratitude, non-violence,

limitless compassion, and generosity. Other virtues include controlling the mind so that it

can firmly rest on the object of interest, and enduring hardships without lamenting and

becoming upset (Paranjpe 1988). Acting in accordance with these virtues is believed to

lead to a state of harmony inside and with the outer world (Shamasundar 2008).

In sum, Hinduism emphasizes the practice of virtues and a contented state of mind as

key ingredients of a good life. Virtue should take place in the context of an individual’s

yearning for transcendence from the material world. The end state of salvation is an

egoless state with a limitless compassion for the rest of creation. Throughout the journey to

salvation, experiential knowledge and intuition are privileged over rationality and intellect.

1.4 Buddhism

Buddhism posits that any notion of owning a permanent self with well-defined boundaries

not only is an illusion, but also is the main source of unhappiness. Self-interest and

selfishness are reliable indicators of an immature mind, a mind who has failed to realize

that others are its own extensions. In contrast, self-renunciation is thought to lead to

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limitless love and compassion, and eradication of destructive states of mind such as anger

and hatred (Mitchell and Wiseman 2003). According to Buddhism, happiness should not be

found outside—in material gains, bodily pleasures, and even in interpersonal relationships.

Rather, it should be found in the heart (Webb 2012) through spiritual training. In Dalai

Lama’s words, ‘‘the highest happiness is when one reaches liberation, at which point there

is no more suffering. That’s genuine, lasting happiness. True happiness relates to the mind

and heart’’ (Webb 2012, p. 34). Happiness is the state of mind that ensues if we realize true

states of affairs—if we are awakened.

The main barrier in the path to genuine happiness is the suffering resulting from the

craving-and-aversion mechanism (Chen 2006a), which follows when ‘‘the temporariness

and inherent lack of satisfaction of hedonism are not understood’’ (Kwee 2012, p. 253).

Craving for illegitimate desires brings with it its antithesis, namely, aversion. When we

crave for something pleasant, we tend to reject its opposite. Buddhism holds that one can

attain true freedom and peace if one outgrows the mind’s habit of reacting with either

craving or aversion to perceptions of external stimuli. Buddhism advocates a state of

happiness which is not dependent on any external or internal pleasurable stimuli (Wallace

and Shapiro 2006). In this doctrine, there is no direct relationship between pleasure and

happiness. Pleasure is temporary, and generally is centred on the self, which can make us

selfish and sometimes is in conflict with the well-being of others (Ricard 2011).

The Buddhist version of well-being is based on mental balance and contentment

(Wallace and Shapiro 2006), which can be cultivated by ‘‘reflecting on the transitory,

unsatisfying nature of hedonic pleasures and by identifying and developing the inner

causes of genuine well-being’’ (Wallace and Shapiro, p. 694). The final step in the path

towards happiness is to understand that we are one with others, and this not only leads to

obtaining happiness, but also brings peace and harmony into the lives of others (see

Mitchell and Wiseman 2003, p. 6). As the fourteenth Dalai Lama puts it: ‘‘The more we

care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of happiness becomes’’ (see

Mitchell and Wiseman 2003, p. 17). In Tibetan Buddhism, a meditational practice is

prescribed for coping with suffering. It is done by reflecting that there are many other

sentient beings undergoing similar suffering. By taking on other people’s suffering, it is

reported that we might be able to destroy the cause of our own suffering (see Mitchell and

Wiseman 2003, p. 17). All this shows that the ultimate goal in Buddhism is not individual

happiness but liberating all sentient beings from suffering.

Happiness understood in the Buddhist way is not necessarily incompatible with suf-

fering, sadness, and tragedy (Ricard 2011), considering that the Buddhist version of

happiness is not premised on hedonic balance. A Buddhist should try to grasp the true

essence of happiness and sadness (Ricard 2011) not to favour one and avoid the other.

Indeed, this doctrine maintains that suffering can be beneficial. According to the fourteenth

Dalai Lama, the Buddhist point of view is that ‘‘by enduring suffering, you can purify your

past negative actions and generate determination to achieve liberation’’ (see Mitchell and

Wiseman 2003, p. 15–16). If one can transform adverse situations into factors of the

spiritual path, hindrances will become favourable conditions for spiritual practice (see

Mitchell and Wiseman 2003). In sum, from a Buddhist standpoint, perceiving the self as

separate from the non-self leads to unnecessary personal desires, and these desired are

blamed for causing suffering. In order to stop the suffering, one needs to achieve a state of

inner peace by realizing that the separation of the self and the non-self is but an illusion.

This awakening will be manifested in limitless love and compassion for all sentient beings.

Eastern Conceptualizations of Happiness 479

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1.5 Taoism

Tao is the eternal truth, the principle regulating nature, heaven, and the lives of human

beings (Young et al. 2005). In Taoism, virtue generally consists of acting in accord with

Tao. The Taoist ideal is to return to a genuine and simple way of life (Chen 2006b).

Taoism advocates the principle of non-action. This principle invites us to act effortlessly

and spontaneously–allowing things to take their course without inappropriate interference

(Chan 1963, 2006b; Peng et al. 2006).

According to the two poles principle, the world is believed to operate through the

interaction of two opposite poles: yin and yang. That is to say, all things exist in polarity,

with the two poles complementing and supporting each other (Chen 2006b). For instance,

goodness cannot exist without evil. It follows that we should accept both poles of anything,

happiness together with unhappiness, success together with failure. Failing to do so will

lead to a sense of suffering. Understanding how happiness and unhappiness complement

one another, and are mutually dependent is believed to be the key to happiness. Tran-

quillity results when pain and pleasure are both seen to be essential (Peng et al. 2006). We

are advised by Taoism to accept with equanimity the cosmic pattern of change.

Contentment and peace of mind are highly valued in Taoism (Lee et al. 2013). This state

of mind is thought to be a result of an experiential knowledge of basic Taoist principles.

This can be achieved if one follows Tao, by not favouring one pole (e.g., happiness) over

the other one (e.g., suffering), and by accepting the pattern of change, which leads to the

idea that the positive is hidden in the negative and vice versa. These principles together

with that of non-action are thought to lead to a sense of inner peace and contentment. It is

reported that, by following these principles, an individual can embrace non-judgmentally

their negative feelings and negative sides of their personality and life (Chen 2006b).

Happiness and contentment can be achieved where no vice (e.g., greed, hatred, fear)

exists, and thus they are value-based concepts in Taoism. One should not directly pursue

these ideal states. They occur as the by-product of living in accordance with Tao. Some

practical techniques to achieve contentment are taking a transcendent perspective, forgoing

one’s desire for success and achievement, and using softness against hardness (Young et al.

2005). Chen (2006b) contends that with such a formulation of happiness, it is possible to

stay content under adverse circumstances.

1.6 Confucianism

In Confucianism, a happy life is not differentiated from a good life (Zhang and Veenhoven

2008). The question of a good life is usually understood in terms of what it means to be

humane (i.e., to be virtuous, Sundararajan 2005). This school of thought strongly

emphasizes social and interpersonal virtues contributing to internal and social harmony. In

the doctrine of the mean we read ‘‘Let the states of equilibrium and harmony exist in

perfection, and a happy order will prevail throughout Heaven and Earth, and all things will

be nourished and will flourish’’ (Ching 2003, p. 85). In Confucianism, a high value is

attached to social relationships particularly family relationships. Harmony is an important

goal of personal and social life (Ip 2009). In a harmonious way of living, actions result

from the individual’s perceptions of their relationships with other people and not neces-

sarily from private volition, emotions, or needs (Ho 1995). Instead of reinforcing and

enhancing the individual self, Confucianism emphasizes the importance of self-cultivation,

self-conquest, and self-discipline, and this has sometimes led to valuing self-abnegation

and asceticism (Ching 2003). However, Confucianism stresses that self-cultivation should

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be undertaken to obtain social virtues, and should not lead to one’s isolation from society.

‘‘The self-cultivation process involves the perforation of the boundary of the individuated

self to include others, starting from those who are closest, such as family members’’ (Yang

2006, p. 342). Obviously, self-cultivation is at the service of obtaining harmony with

others.

Cardinal virtues in Confucianism are social in essence. The three dominant virtues of

benevolence (also translated as humanity or human-heartedness), righteousness (or jus-

tice), and propriety should regulate interpersonal relationships (Hwang 2001, 2006). Other

important virtues are wisdom, trustworthiness, filial piety (Woods and Lamond 2011),

moderation, and dutifulness (Yan 2005). Benevolence (i.e., a feeling of compassion, love,

and concern for the well-being of others) is believed to be the essence of being human

(Zhang and Veenhoven 2008), the chief virtue that makes a life good.

In sum, Confucianism portrays a good life mainly as a life of internal and external

harmony. It is equally important to have a fully functioning family with compassionate

bonds among the members, cultivating internal satisfaction, and facing hardship and

adversity with equanimity. Such a good life can be achieved by sticking to virtues, dis-

ciplined self-governance, and maintaining a harmonious attachment with others and the

world. Pleasure and positive emotions are not especially emphasized in this notion of

happiness (Lee et al. 2013). Instead they should be controlled or sometimes sacrificed. In

fact, one’s life should be sacrificed for the sake of virtue. For example, Confucius says ‘‘…
humane men do not seek to preserve their lives at the expense of humanity; rather, they

give their lives to attain humanity’’ (The analects, 15.9, Huang 1997, p. 153).

1.7 Sufism

Sufism is a philosophy trying to explain world, mankind, and God relying on intuitive

knowledge and direct experience rather than reasoning and logic (Joshanloo and Rastegar

2012). According to Frager (1999), a basic concept in Sufi psychology is the heart, i.e.,

where gnosis and spiritual knowledge reside. The heart is thought to contain our deeper

intelligence and wisdom. Sufism aspires towards developing a ‘‘soft, feeling, compas-

sionate heart’’ (p. 2). Understanding through the ‘‘heart’s intelligence’’ is superior to

understanding through the intelligence of the head. Indeed, the intelligence of the heart is

the only instrument that can be used to discover the ultimate truth (Joshanloo and Rastegar

2012). To Sufis, reason is limited in many ways and cannot outgrow its inherent limita-

tions. In particular, when reason denies intuitive knowledge and ‘‘blinds the eye of the

heart’’, it becomes the target of strong criticism from Sufism. This stands in stark contrast

to the Aristotelian and contemporary western emphasis on logical reasoning as the highest

human faculty, which should rule the whole personality (Frager 1999).

Another important concept in Sufism is the ego (the self or the nafs). The ego is a part of

our psyche that consistently leads us off the spiritual path, a part of the self which com-

mands us to do evil. As stated metaphorically by a Sufi: ‘‘the ego’s ultimate aim is to

overthrow God’s dominion of the heart and for the ego to proclaim itself as lord’’ (Kabbani

2006, p. 197). According to Kabbani (2006), the ego can impede the actualization of the

spiritual …

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