Positive Self-reflection: Happiness as a Cultural Ideal

The notion of happiness is dependent on culture, so to understand whether culture makes humans happy or not we first have to define what culture is and how we can understand happiness within that context. In this essay, culture will be defined through a synthesis of Mauss (habitus), Kuhn(episteme), and Bildung theory. Combining these, we end up with a working definition of culture which is “a shared world of meaning” structured by knowledge, values, power, and behaviours or habitus.[1]                        

Importantly, not all values are perceived as equal. One course of actions can be deemed better than other actions, the available resources in terms of time and energy are deemed to be best spent in that direction. In this way, culture is also motivational or idealizing and orients us in life. This aspect of culture will be emphasised in relation to happiness. For instance, Bildung theory makes this idealizing explicit in its emphasis on the potential of rational human beings to interact with nature towards a metaphysical and moral end point. Failing to do so, makes you “fail to be a human being.”[2] It follows that on this subjective experience of the world we can perceive ourselves to be better and worse, we can go up and down.                                                                                                                              

 Happiness is then both the experience and the genuine state of being “up” and living in the higher spheres of the “hierarchies of values.”[3] One example is the successful adherence to moral roles such as a father, spouse etc. If one in ceteris paribus both experiences joy and pride and is justified culturally to do so, he can be considered happy.[4] In other words, happiness is when one is successful in being a human, however that is defined. This working definition gives us the opportunity to circumvent the large variety of content and focus on the structure of happiness across cultures.              

Importantly, if it is true that the perceived position of being in a culturally defined “higher” position constitutes happiness, it follows that there must already be a “world of meaning” present that constitutes this hierarchy. Partly following Hobbes, in the state of nature survival becomes the only goal. This ideal is merely negative and binary (you are either dead or alive). Surviving then seems to be an awkward criterion for happiness since it does not involve being “up” within life. Gladness to be alive is therefore better described with “contentness.” This means that culture is the precursor to the sociocultural state of positive self-reflection called happiness.                                                   

However, it does not follow that culture guarantees happiness. Paradoxically, culture can also seriously hamper its achievement. One important way in which this might work is the lack of consistency within the ideals and norms of a culture. For instance, in Western culture women are often told that they should be as successful as men, but the social and institutional culture is still such that women are the predominant caregivers to babies. As a result, women can feel inadequate in relation to the perceived ideal of the good Western life.

 In short, cultures create “a world of meaning” that is necessary but not sufficient for human happiness. Humans need culture to position themselves in relation to their cultural ideals. As such, cultures can help individuals achieve a sense of fulfilment or happiness by allowing mobility towards the ideals they propose.


[1] Mentioned in my final class as the shift from “culture is the human world” to “a world of meaning.” The benefit of this definition is that it focuses on what culture does to the experience of its members, rather than being a static definition.

[2] Quote often mentioned in my class.

[3] Mentioned by Durkheim and Mauss in Primitive Classification (1903)

[4] Justification and authenticity are emphasised because one can easily be deluded “artificially” to believe his is in such and such a state by medicine or technology. Even if we describe happiness pure subjectively, experience is necessary but not sufficient to happiness because we have certain criteria to our experiences before we consider ourselves happy. This is what Robert Nozick elegantly shows this with his thought experiment with an experience machine. This machine is able to give us all the pleasurable and honourable experiences we would want and yet an overwhelming majority would deny to enter such a machine basically for its artificial nature. We want to be genuinely “up” and flourishing whatever that may constitute for cultures and individuals.