Eastern Conceptualizations of Happiness: Fundamental
Differences with Western Views
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
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
J Happiness Stud (2014) 15:475–493
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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;McMahon2008;Schwartz2009; Tatarkiewicz 1976;
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.
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
. Thus, obviously, unlike many western schools, Hin-
duism does not make a sharp distinction between humankind and the Divine (Younger
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
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).
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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.
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.
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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.
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
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).
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 potential of the heart if not controlled by the divine aspects of the personality.
Accordingly, the ego should be actively fought against throughout life (Frager 1999).
Pursuing the Suﬁ path might lead to some mystical experiences of annihilation of the self
or unity of being (e.g. Fakhry 2004). The annihilation of the individual self refers to the
destruction of the individual self to become one with the Divine Being who is omnipresent.
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In this state, Suﬁs say, the soul is so completely absorbed by the presence of God that it no
longer has any individuality (Elkaisy-Friemuth 2006; Joshanloo 2013).
Like other eastern philosophies, gaining internal and external harmony is emphasized
in Suﬁsm. Suﬁs think that ‘‘The secret of the existence of the individual as well as of
the whole cosmos lies in one thing, and that is balance’’ (Khan and Witteveen 1999,
p. 25). The disharmony of thought, body, and external world is believed by Suﬁs to
lead to illness. To gain balance and harmony, one needs to whole-heartedly love God
and accept whatever he ordains, including miseries, losses, and hardship. Suﬁs embrace
hardship and suffering as necessary elements of the path towards God. A Persian Suﬁ
poet says: ‘‘The self will not go in gladness and with caresses, it must be chased with
sorrow, drowned in tears’’ (Vaughan-Lee 1994, p. 90). Suﬁs believe that God is with
those hearts which are broken for him. They use the analogy that gold ore becomes
gold after it is put through a process of ﬁre. Likewise, a Suﬁ should be transformed to
a true lover of God through suffering (Vaughan-Lee 1994). Interpreted this way,
hardship and suffering are seen as blessings and gifts from God to help the individual
abandon their attachment to this world and transform them to a true lover. In short,
what most representatively characterizes a Suﬁ conceptualization of happiness is a
combination of inner harmony, intuition, contentment, self-transcendence, and union
with the Divine.
The previous sections provided sketches of the notions of happiness in ﬁve different
eastern schools of thought, providing the essential context within which to summarise
major differences between western and eastern views of happiness. In this section, insights
from all these eastern schools are integrated to facilitate the discussion of major domains of
difference between western and eastern views. Six major domains of difference emerge,
which are listed below. These are deﬁnitely not exhaustive or mutually exclusive, but they
appear to capture the most outstanding domains of difference.
2.1 Self-Transcendence Versus Self-Enhancement
The way cultures deﬁne the self is of great importance in conceptualizing happiness.
Whereas the western concept of the self is primarily based on the ideals of individualism,
eastern traditions tend to regard the self as a small part of the collective and the cosmos.
Consistent with the western understanding of the self, enhancing autonomy, independence,
self-esteem, and a strong ego is considered to be a vital ingredient of a good life in these
cultures (Chang and Dong-Shick 2005; Chen 2006a; Markus and Hamedani 2007). In
contrast, in Asian traditions, the individual self is de-emphasised in one way or another
(Hwang 2009). In Buddhism, the existence of an individual self is considered an illusion.
Confucianism emphasizes the relational aspects of the self, deﬁning its maturity in tran-
scending one’s personal desires for the sake of family and group. In Suﬁsm and Hinduism,
a mature self is one that loses its individuality and gets absorbed in the Transcendent. In
these cultures, self-choice and autonomy are not portrayed as moral ideals (e.g., Sundar-
This fundamental difference between western and eastern concepts of happiness has
important consequences for determining the nature of positive psychological qualities. For
example, western psychological models and measurement instruments emphasize self-
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determination, resistance to enculturation, and deliverance from convention (Deci and
Ryan 2000; Ryff 1989; Ryff and Singer 2008). Plus, contemporary western formulations
and measurement instruments have mainly left out the social aspect of well-being, focusing
on its private aspects (Keyes 1998). These individualistic qualities are not good indictors
for mental well-being in eastern cultures where self-transcendence captures the core of
psychological maturity. The western concept of happiness has been criticized based on
eastern perspectives as being too self-focused. In eastern schools of thought, it is argued
that an individualistic pursuit of happiness may indeed lead to individual and collective
unhappiness. Dambrun and Ricard (2011), for instance, argue that an individualistic notion
of happiness can lead only to transitory positive states as well as numerous negative ones
(e.g., hostility, jealousy, anger, and hatred), whereas a less selﬁsh conceptualization of
happiness can lead to a higher frequency of compassion, empathy, care, respect and so on
which are signiﬁers of psychological maturity in the East.
Accordingly, psychological theories of mental well-being in the East may consider
measuring self-transcendence as an important ingredient of well-being. The eastern
emphasis on self-transcendence is also consistent with the conceptualization of wisdom by
Levenson et al. (2002). Following some earlier lines of research, these researchers deﬁne
wisdom as moving beyond self-centred consciousness and connecting empathically with
the experiences of others. In short, the current review implies that important aspects of the
experience of the self are ignored in the contemporary formulations and measures of
mental well-being. In formulating and assessing mental well-being in eastern cultures,
enough attention should be devoted to such positive qualities as self-transcendence,
empathy, and wisdom. Moreover, as further discussed later on, in eastern mental well-
being models, the relational and collective aspect of the self should be given due weight.
2.2 Eudaimonism Versus Hedonism
In contemporary western psychology, scientiﬁc analysis of individuals’ mental well-being
and quality of life is mainly undertaken in the ﬁeld of subjective well-being, which has
been formulated based on a hedonic understanding of well-being. Subjective well-being
scales assess the presence of positive emotions and a sense of satisfaction, as well as the
absence of negative feelings over a certain period of time. A hedonistic conceptualization
of happiness is in accord with the core values and ethos of modern western culture, namely
liberal modernity, hedonism, and romantic individualism (e.g., Belliotti 2004; Christopher
and Hickinbottom 2008; Haybron 2008; Joshanloo 2013; McMahon 2008; Schwartz 2009;
Tatarkiewicz 1976; Triandis 1995; Triandis et al. 1990). Ever since the Enlightenment,
westerners have believed in the sovereignty of individuals over their personal happiness
(Haybron 2008), and the importance of mood and affect balance as an ingredient of a good
life (Christopher 1999; Tatarkiewicz 1976). Thus, in the contemporary West, happiness is
deﬁned dominantly based on the absence and presence of pleasure and certain emotions
(e.g., Kahneman 1999). It is not surprising that almost all large-scale multinational studies
on mental well-being launched by western researchers over the last decades have been
based on hedonistic theory, using subjective well-being measures (e.g., Diener et al. 2010;
Helliwell et al. 2012; Inglehart 2009).
However, the present review suggests that hedonism as a way of pursuing happiness is
not equally favoured in eastern traditions (e.g., Lee et al. 2013). In these traditions, positive
emotions and pleasures are considered too temporary and marginal to be the criterion
against which happiness is measured. For example, Buddhism dismisses any kind of
hedonism because hedonism carries the potential for cultivating self-centeredness (Ricard
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2011). Asceticism has always been considered a key method for puriﬁcation of the soul in
Suﬁsm (Joshanloo and Rastegar 2012), which obviously runs counter to the hedonistic
perspective. Eastern schools are generally suspicious of bodily pleasures, and promote
desire control techniques to keep individuals from perusing pleasures at the expense of
ignoring main virtues. Plus, as will be argued later, suffering and negative emotions (which
signify unhappiness in the hedonistic view) are not considered entirely bad in these cul-
tures, and are thought to contribute to spiritual development. All this makes clear that
hedonism cannot be the basis for deﬁning happiness in eastern cultures. Instead, virtues
form the cornerstone of a good life in these cultures. Therefore, the eastern conceptuali-
zation of happiness is more consistent with a eudaimonistic understanding of happiness.
Given that the eastern concept of happiness is basically eudaimonistic, it might seem
attractive to apply the western eudaimonistic models and measures in eastern contexts.
However, it is important to note that the positive qualities advocated by eastern eudai-
monism are fundamentally different from those recognized in contemporary western
psychology, with the former emphasizing selﬂessens, adjustment to the environment, and
relational virtues, and the latter emphasizing virtues like autonomy and environmental
mastery. In nonwestern cultures, even personal virtues are utilized to ultimately achieve
self-transcendence, caring for other humans and other living beings, and contributing to the
collective. Some of western virtues (e.g., possessing an autonomous self with clear
boundaries with others), are not only looked down on in the East, but also considered the
cause of unhappiness, sin, and destruction of the collective. In contrast, experiencing a
sense of no-self or unity with the non-self, are sometimes considered pathological in
western psychiatry and psychology. A good example of the differences in the nature of
virtue is ﬁlial piety which is considered as an important sign of maturity within the eastern
context (Hoshmand and Ho 1995). However, in western cultures, family obligations and
social expectations are sometimes considered as constraints impeding the full expression of
human potential and unique selfhood (Christopher and Hickinbottom 2008).
The eastern concept of eudaimonia ﬁts well with the formulation of eudaimonia in
Dambrun and Ricard’s (2011) theory of self-based functioning. According to this theory,
the structure of the self (i.e., self-centeredness or selﬂessness) can lead to different kinds of
psychological functioning (involving motivation, affect, beliefs, and behaviours) which
may have notable consequences for one’s happiness. Dambrun and Ricard argue that a
conceptualization of self as a real entity with sharp boundaries, which is more dominant in
the West than in the East, is consistent with being motivated by the hedonistic principles of
desire for pleasure and reluctance towards pain. In contrast, a conception that de-empha-
sizes the stability and boundaries of the self, is consistent with being motivated by ‘‘the
principle of harmony’’. From an eastern perspective, they argue that authentic happiness
ensues when selﬂessness, rather than self-centeredness is cultivated.
2.3 Harmony Versus Mastery
In the contemporary western worldview, humankind is considered to be a privileged
creature, and by virtue of its intelligence is bound to control other aspects of creation
(Sibley 1973). This perspective has its roots in western enlightenment mentality consid-
ering raw nature as a force to be controlled and subordinated. On this basis, humankind
should naturally attempt to ‘‘analyze, label, categorize, manipulate, control, or consume the
things of the world’’ (Gilgen and Cho 1979, p. 836). In contrast, in eastern worldviews,
humanity is described as a small part of the cosmos and should recognize its oneness with
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the nature. For example, in Taoism, humankind possesses an insigniﬁcant position in the
A man in the universe is like a pebble or a twig in the mountains. As such he can only
obey nature. He may be useful in a small way, but it is beyond him to originate
anything (Zhwangtze, Autumn Water). (Zhang and Veenhoven 2008, p. 429)
In a similar vein, in Hinduism, humankind is considered as a part of nature with no special
superiority over other parts (Gardner and Stern 1996). In eastern schools, all creatures
including human beings, animals, plants, and even non-sentient beings are considered to be
parts of an underlying unity. Therefore, unlike many western schools, eastern schools do
not make a sharp distinction between humankind and the rest of creation. Ideas like
mastering or conquering nature are alien to these traditions.
This fundamental difference has signiﬁcant repercussions for deﬁning positive psy-
chological qualities. Consistent with the western dominant way of thinking about
humankind and its relationship with the environment, qualities such as environmental
mastery and control are highly valued in western cultures (Kim and Markus 1999; Snibbe
and Markus 2005; Tseng 2005). This emphasis is also reﬂected in contemporary western
conceptualizations of a good life. For example, in a widely used model (Ryff 1989), a fully
functioning person is thought to be one who ‘‘has a sense of mastery and competence in
managing the environment; controls complex array of external activities; makes effective
use of surrounding opportunities; [And is] able to choose or create contexts suitable to
personal needs and values’’ (Ryff and Singer 2008, p. 25).
Kitayama et al. (2007) note that the overemphasis on maintaining and enhancing per-
sonal control over the environment helps members of individualistic cultures realize their
supreme ideals of independence and autonomy, which ultimately leads to higher mental
well-being. In contrast, in eastern cultures where interpersonal harmony and adjustment are
emphasized, people reach a sense of well-being basically through promoting mutual
sympathy and harmony with others and the whole cosmos (Kitayama et al. 2007). These
perspectives value self-transcendence, interdependence, softness, ﬂexibility, and adjust-
ment to the environment rather than autonomy and independence (Chen 2006b; Young
et al. 2005). One cardinal virtue in eastern cultures is to adjust one’s psyche to the rhythm
of the cosmos and life. For example, in Taoism and Hinduism, virtue is to adjust to the
universal laws of Tao and dharma, respectively. These schools emphasize the importance
of adjustment to the situation, gentleness, and humility towards other people and condi-
tions of life rather than trying to inﬂuence and control things. This ideal may not be
welcome from a western point of view that focuses on environmental mastery and control.
In sum, one of the fundamental differences in western and eastern notions of happiness and
a good life is that in the former, attempting to change, master, and control the world (including
various aspects of one’s life, relationships, and nature) is praised, whereas in the latter,
adjustment to the environment, achieving harmony with others and the cosmos is prioritized.
Unfortunately, current western models and measures have been mainly developed based on a
mastery model, ignoring the signiﬁcance of harmony in non-western contexts.
2.4 Contentment Versus Satisfaction
Life satisfaction has been stressed over the past four decades in western psychological
literature on mental health (Diener 2012; Diener et al. 1999). For example, in subjective
well-being theory, satisfaction is regarded as one of the fundamental components of mental
well-being. At ﬁrst glance, the eastern concept of contentment may seem similar to the
Eastern Conceptualizations of Happiness 485
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western concept of life satisfaction. However, a closer look indicates that there are fun-
damental differences between these two concepts. Contentment, in the East, involves
satisfaction as well as many other qualities and experiences. It is understood as a delicate
balance between joy and sorrow that should be preserved in both happy and sad times
(Kwee 2012; Shamasundar 2008). In Hinduism, for instance, contentment is considered to
be different from a passive acceptance of situations. Instead, ‘‘it is an intensely dynamic
acceptance of results of one’s efforts in [the] moment-to-moment struggle of life’’ (Shamasundar
2008, p. 141). It involves accepting any failure or misery one faces with ‘‘composure, dignity,
and gracefulness’’. This sense of contentment is believed to result from the realization of the
transcendent self (Salagame 2003). Therefore, in the East, this concept is spiritually loaded. It
involves a sense of being at peace with oneself, others, and the whole cosmos, which should be
achieved through hard spiritual practice. In these traditions, goal achievement, social compari-
son, and even the amount of suffering that a person experiences should not affect one’s sense of
contentment and balance. Chen (2006b) points out that
Contentment refers to a state of mind in which the potential psychic energy known as
libido in Western psychology is ‘‘transformed’’ to serve a higher purpose rather than
actualized as a desire that needs to be ‘‘gratiﬁed’’ or repressed. In this way, con-
tentment is accompanied by a sense of fulﬁllment and abundance. (p. 93)
In this sense, contentment is a religious obligation for a believer. Moreover, in eastern
traditions, just obtaining personal contentment is not enough, and one should also work
for acquiring objective virtues (e.g., empathy and self-transcendence), whereas in the
ﬁeld of subjective well-being life satisfaction is essentially a goal in itself. Plus, unlike in
the East, in the subjective well-being literature, satisfaction is considered a desirable state
of mind irrespective of its causes. That is, what leads to life satisfaction in the person
(e.g., desire gratiﬁcation, goal achievement, social comparison, pleasure) is generally not
2.5 Valuing Versus Avoiding Suffering
A potential consequence of a hedonistic conceptualization of happiness that stresses the
maximization of subjective well-being (consisting in part of the absence of negative
emotions) is that such a conceptualization, which seems to be dominant in the West, makes
it difﬁcult to accept hardship, negative affect, and unhappiness as possible integral parts of
a good life (e.g., Held 2002; Robbins 2008; Shamasundar 2008). In hedonic psychology,
the absence of subjective well-being is seen as negative and researchers in this ﬁeld have
generally failed to look at and document potentially positive factors when a person reports
themselves as unhappy.
The ﬁeld of subjective well-being can be criticized using the eastern conceptualization
of eudaimonia mainly because in this ﬁeld happiness is partly conceptualized and mea-
sured as the absence of negative emotions and suffering. Given that hardship, suffering,
and pain are unavoidable aspects of life, this idea seems unrealistic to many eastern
perspectives. For example, Ho and Ho (2007) observe that
The preoccupation with subjective well-being appears to be a symptom of attempting
to expunge unhappiness from humanity’s collective consciousness. But true happi-
ness includes the wisdom to embrace unhappiness as part of life. It comes naturally
when one is no longer obsessed with pursuing it. (p. 64).
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Having this in mind, eastern eudaimonistic theories of well-being accept the existence of
negative feelings and anhedonia in a truly happy life. From an eastern point of view, one
should be able to embrace both positive and negative sides of life. For example, in Taoism,
failing to accept unhappiness together with happiness is believed to lead to a subjective
sense of suffering. Similarly, Buddhist psychology posits that ‘‘happiness is a relative
quality that codependently originates with unhappiness and that therefore it cannot
possibly exist in an absolute sense or in isolation’’ (Kwee 2012, p. 250). In fact, an
emphasis on self-cultivation and self-discipline (vs. self-enhancement) renders eastern
formulations of happiness more tolerant towards negative experiences and feelings. Acting
in accordance with such virtues as sympathy, love, self-control, generosity, desire
optimization, and tolerance occasionally requires hard self-discipline and sacriﬁce. Despair
and failure are to be expected in the process of self-actualization and self-development.
Indeed, some dosage of suffering is prescribed in eastern schools as a necessary
ingredient of a happy life. For example, Suﬁsm holds that, through suffering, a person can
be transformed to a true lover of God (Vaughan-Lee 1994). In Hinduism, a state of well-
being without having been challenged by hardship and illnesses is considered incomplete
(Shamasundar 2008). Similarly, Confucius explicitly emphasizes sticking to virtues even
when they have hedonic costs. No matter what the hedonic or affective costs of virtuous
activity are, one should practice it as it is the ultimate signiﬁer of one’s level of happiness
and ﬂourishing. This is emphasized in the sayings of Confucius that ‘‘Eating coarse food,
drinking plain water, and bending one arm for pillow–happiness also lies therein…’’ ( The
analects, 7.15) and ‘‘a shi [e.g., a minor scholar and ofﬁcial] who aspires after the Way [of
Confucianism] but is ashamed of poor cloths and poor food is not worth discoursing with’’
(The analects, 4.9, Huang 1997, p. 68, italics in the original). In a similar vein, in Bud-
dhism, it is posited that by enduring suffering, an individual can purge the consequences of
their past misdeeds. In sum, nonwestern traditions generally see positive aspects in neg-
ative emotions (e.g., sadness) and suffering, and believe that hardship and suffering can
contribute to happiness. This can have signiﬁcant consequences for the ﬁeld of mental
well-being. For example, an easterner who has been experiencing negative emotions over
the past month may score low on contemporary subjective well-being scales, but he or she
may have many reasons to ﬁnd real happiness in his or her life over the last month (based
on spiritual reasons).
The contemporary subjective well-being measures are not able to reﬂect these important
subtleties of eastern emotional and spiritual experiences, because for them, the presence of
negative feelings necessarily signiﬁes unhappiness. The western psychological eudaimo-
nism is on the other hand more tolerant of the existence of unhappiness and suffering
(Wong 2011,2012). This theoretical potential however has not led to the full integration of
these insights into dominant eudaimonic models (e.g., Deci and Ryan 2000; Ryff 1989).
That is, even though some of these lines of research have studied people facing hardship
(e.g., Ryff and Singer 2003), the measures designed in these lines of research do not
explicitly tap into subtleties of people’s experiences of negative affect and suffering. It is
also noteworthy that the western eudaimonic theories do emphasize the importance of
positive affect balance, and postulate that a person will be better off if psychological
virtues are supplemented by positive affect balance (e.g., Keyes and Annas 2009; Keyes
et al. 2002), or psychological virtues lead to positive affect balance. Again, this emphasis
on positive affect balance makes the integration of negative affect and suffering into
eudaimonic models difﬁcult. Therefore, much theoretical and empirical work remains to be
done for a successful integration of eastern views of suffering and negative affect into
western hedonic and eudaimonic models.
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2.6 Relevance Versus Relative Irrelevance of Spirituality and Religion
As Webb (2012) points out, in examining the concept of happiness across cultures, it is
crucially important to take into account the extent to which spirituality or transcendence is
important for a culture. In dominant western lines of research where materialistic values
and moral pluralism are valued, religion and spirituality are studied mainly as predictors of
mental well-being, and they are not involved in formulating it. In contrast, in non-western
cultures, spirituality and religion are interwoven in individuals’ understanding and expe-
riencing of life in general and happiness in particular. Happiness for many non-westerners
is formulated based on religious and metaphysical worldviews. Transcendence, spirituality,
mystical experience, following religious duties, and practicing religious rituals are
essential for these people’s sense of happiness.
In contemporary western models, it is taken for granted that happiness and satisfaction
are to be experienced in this worldly life. However, an emphasis on mystical experience
and transcending everyday life is remarkable in eastern cultures. In particular, experiencing
states of no-self or unity with God are considered ideal ways of being in these traditions.
Favouring mystical and transcendental experiences is not in accord with the dominant
western values of materialism, positivism, and rationalism. Western belief systems occa-
sionally dismiss mystical and spiritual phenomena as being superstitious (Johnson 1985).
Consequently, these mystical states have been sometimes interpreted as being pathological
by western clinicians (Ward 1989). The eastern mystical and transcendental perspectives,
on the other hand, may have serious reservations about the effectiveness of western mental
health services. For instance, Suﬁs express their concerns about secular psychotherapeutic
methods which are based on developing self-esteem and rationality. Rasool (2002) believes
that these methods cannot transform the client’s ‘‘deep-seated cultural and psychological
conditioning’’ (p. 24), and therefore should be seen merely as means for strengthening the
ego, which is a western ideal. He thinks that these methods can never reach beyond their
inherent limitations due to their ignorance of human beings’ spiritual potential. So, their
effects are at best short-lived. As a substitute, he asserts that, by reattaching the individual
to God, awakening the heart, and cultivating their spiritual potential, Suﬁsm can have a
life-changing transformational effect on an individual.
It is also worth mentioning that eastern views on happiness and a good life are morally
loaded. Happiness is deﬁned based on moral values, and should be achieved through
morally justiﬁable means. For example, morality is considered in Confucianism as the
main ingredient of a well-lived life. According to Confucius, ‘‘…Wealth and rank
acquired through unrighteous means are to me like drifting clouds’’ (The analects, 7.15,
Huang 1997, p. 90). Indeed, contemporary western conceptions of happiness can be crit-
icized by the eastern-minded for picturing a life devoid of a moral map (Sundararajan
2005). An emphasis on certain moral values is not consistent with the dominant western
emphasis on moral relativism (Christopher and Hickinbottom 2008; Richardson and
Guignon 2008; Slife and Richardson 2008).
In short, it does not seem enough to examine religion or spirituality as predictors of
happiness in the East. Instead, the concept of happiness should be conceptualized and
assessed in religiously-informed ways. A formulation of happiness for easterners should
also take moral values into consideration. Not all positive emotions or achievements may
be regarded as a components of happiness in eastern cultures. In order to be considered
positive, an emotion or achievement should also be morally justiﬁed. An eastern notion of
happiness generally has such religious concepts as awakening, transcendence, and union
with the Divine as major components, which have been deliberately excluded from the
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western dominant models of mental well-being. Some western scientiﬁc models, which are
mainly driven by the standards of rationality, testability, and objectivity (Kwee 2012),
reject these mystical and spiritual concepts for being non-scientiﬁc, superstitious, primi-
tive, or even pathological, which makes dominant well-being models less applicable to
3 Closing Remarks
Although, in this article, I focused on major differences between the western and eastern
conceptions of happiness, it is important to note that both poles of the six domains
mentioned above (e.g., harmony vs. mastery) can be found in any single culture. In fact,
these opposite poles are two general approaches to the world available to individuals in all
cultures. It is far from impossible to ﬁnd westerners who endorse such eastern values as
harmony and collectivism. For example, Delle Fave et al.’s (2011) qualitative study
showed that some western participants emphasized inner harmony in deﬁning happiness.
Mogilner et al. (2011) found that, as Americans get older, they become more likely to
associate happiness with peacefulness, which is consistent with an eastern understanding of
happiness. However, previous research indicates that western and eastern cultures provide
varying number of opportunities for the occurrence of these qualities, and that there are
real differences between western and eastern cultures (e.g., Kitayama et al. 2007; Morling
et al. 2002), which are not entirely abolished by globalization (Minkov 2011).
It is also noteworthy that certain qualities are universally accepted as main ingredients
of happiness. For example, the majority of previous qualitative studies have found that the
success of interpersonal relationships is an important factor in people’s lay understanding
of happiness across western and eastern cultures (e.g., Delle Fave et al. 2011; Pﬂug 2009).
A positive personal relationship has also been recognized as an important ingredient of
happiness in major western theories of mental well-being (e.g., Deci and Ryan 2000; Ryff
1989). Recently, limited attention has been also devoted to the social aspect of well-being
in the western psychological literature (Keyes 1998). Despite these fundamental similar-
ities among cultures, the same psychological quality may take various shapes in western
and nonwestern cultures. Two previous studies among many others illustrate this possi-
bility very well. Pﬂug (2009) found that whereas South African participants emphasized
the importance of the relationship with their family members in deﬁning happiness,
German participants emphasized selecting friends based on one’s own personal character,
reﬂecting the more ﬂexible nature of interpersonal relationships in more individualistic
Germany. Uchida and Kitayama (2009) found that interpersonal harmony was more clo-
sely associated with the hedonic experience of happiness by the Japanese participants than
the American participants, although for both groups interpersonal harmony was important.
In sum, there are differences in the way abstract qualities (which seem to be universally
important to the good life) play out across cultures. More sensitive models and measures
are needed to take into account cultural similarities and differences of this sort.
Although I focused on eastern schools of thought in this article, many of the concepts
and virtues discussed here are also important ingredients of a good life in many other non-
western cultures outside Asia (e.g., African, Latin American). For example, consider the
Navajo of the South Western United States. For them, happiness mainly consists of
‘‘endeavouring to live in harmony and balance with oneself, one’s loved ones, one’s
community, the natural world, and the universe throughout one’s life span’’ (Willeto 2012,
p. 379). As another example, consider the Matsigenka of the Peruvian Amazon. Izquierdo’s
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(2005) interviews with the Matsigenka showed that their main ways of obtaining well-
being and happiness were harmonious relationships with the family and the community,
maintaining balance with the physical and spiritual environments, sharing, and controlling
anger and jealousy. In these non-eastern accounts of happiness, contributing to the col-
lective and harmonious relationship with others and the whole cosmos form the main
ingredients of a good life, which makes them very similar to eastern perspectives I have
The outcomes of the present review indicate that an investigation of indigenous cultures
is necessary before applying western models and measures of mental well-being. Such
knowledge is crucial in developing informed hypotheses and a more culture-sensitive
measurement of related concepts. This article was a preliminary step in integrating the
literature on eastern understandings of happiness. It is hoped that the outcomes of such
conceptual analyses will stimulate more informed empirical investigations.
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