What is Happiness In China? The Answer May Surprise You

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What is happiness? It’s one of the most basic human emotions. The pursuit of it is considered a basic human right, enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence and recognised by the UN as a “fundamental human goal.” But what is it? And is it the same on the other side of the world?

Spoiler Alert: No, it’s not. In fact, the belief that happiness is universal is a common mistake that could impact how you market your  global business. After all, “happiness” is one of the major emotions that marketers appeal to. Here are some examples of how happiness varies across cultures, and some tips to avoid this common international marketing pitfall.

Why Happiness Gets Lost in Translation

Why is “happiness” so hard to translate?  To start, it’s more difficult than you’d think to define it, even in English. Sure, Merriam-Webster may define it as “the state of being happy.” But if it were that easy, the self-help industry wouldn’t be raking in billions of dollars, would it?  In the pop culture of the English-speaking world, it’s been described as everything from a warm puppy to a warm gun.

So, what is happiness? Even sociologists who study happiness for a living have had trouble creating a definition that translates easily to other languages and other cultures. As the Washington Post points out, that’s the trouble with all the studies that claim to have identified the “happiest countries,” usually Denmark. The definition of happiness may have been lost in translation:

Some researchers say the reason is that happiness in Danish is often translated as lykke — a term that can describe a kind of everyday well-being that might be brought on by a nice cup of coffee or a slice of bread with cheese.”

Although now that I think about it, good coffee and good cheese make me a very happy girl, and I’m not even Danish. What is happiness? Is there more to it than that? I’m not sure.

In most languages, there are a variety of possible translations for “happiness.” Each one carries its own shades of meaning, and often none of them match the English definition exactly. For example, researchers studying happiness in China used three different words in surveys and interviews, “xingfu for a good life, you yiyi for meaning and kuaile for a good mood.”

What is Happiness?  The Answer Has Changed Over Time

But even in English, the meaning of the word “happiness” has changed over time. The word hasn’t always indicated a feeling, or a goal to achieve. In fact,  the Western ideal of “happiness” as a state to be pursued is a recent invention. A research paper published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin noted that

Across cultures and time, happiness was most frequently defined as good luck and favorable external conditions. However, in American English, this definition was replaced by definitions focused on favorable internal feeling states.

So, what’s the difference? In Western, English-speaking cultures, happiness is something you chase. In many other cultures, it’s something that just comes to you. Or doesn’t. And that affects how people make decisions…including purchasing decisions.  To quote the research paper above:

In contrast, in cultures where happiness is conceived as luck and fortune, happiness might not be the conscious goal. Thus, various decisions might not be made to maximize happiness.

What is Happiness? It Depends on Culture

Additionally, activities and occasions that are considered “happy” can vary from culture to culture. The Washington Post gives an example of an old woman in China picking out her burial clothes. She calls it “a happy thing.” Meanwhile, only the most morbid of Westerners would agree with this sentiment.

 When Happiness Isn’t Happy At All

Worldwide, happiness isn’t always considered a good thing.  Some cultures believe that being “too happy” can actually invite misfortune. According to an article published in the Journal of Happiness Studies:

“These cultures hold the belief that especially extreme happiness leads to unhappiness and other negative consequences that outweigh the benefits of such positive feelings…People in non-Western cultures, such as Iran and neighboring countries, worry that their peers, an “evil eye” or some other supernatural deity might resent their happiness and that they will eventually suffer any number of severe consequences.”

4 Takeaways for International Marketers

Marketing  and advertising have always been, in part, about selling happiness. But in recent years, more and more brands have built campaigns that are explicitly centered around the concept of “happiness.” How can you make sure your marketing maintains its effectiveness across cultures? Here are 4 key takeaways:

  • Understand the local culture, and how it differs from your own.
  • Understand your audience, and how they fit into the local culture.  To use one of the examples above, not everyone in Iran is afraid that bad luck will strike if they are “too happy.”
  • Understand the emotions you’re selling, and what provokes them in your target audience.
  • Sometimes, translation isn’t enough. Transcreation is often a better option. With transcreation, marketing campaigns are reinvented to take cultural differences into account and produce a consistent emotional response.

If it sounds like you need expert help, well, you probably do. At K International, our global teams of marketers and translators have the inside knowledge necessary to make your marketing campaign a success wherever your target audience resides.

Learn more about our transcreation services.