Artwork: Yue Minjun, The Massacre at Chios, 2001, oil on canvas, 300 x 220 cm
A modern Russian adage holds that “a person who smiles a lot is either a fool or an American.” It’s true that when McDonald’s arrived in Russia, in 1990, one of its first tasks was to train clerks to seem cheerful. I’ve spent time since with Russian friends, discussing cultural rules on showing happiness, agreeing that differences remain.
The point here is not to disparage Russians. Most East Asian cultures also have lower happiness expectations than Americans are accustomed to. Some Latin American cultures tend in the other direction. The point is that cultural variations on happiness are considerable, contributing to the findings of international happiness polls that dot the contemporary public opinion landscape.
Moreover, attitudes toward happiness don’t just vary; they change. Danes, the current polls suggest, are no longer so melancholy. Exploring the nature of such change not only illuminates our own context for happiness but also allows us to assess its advantages and downsides. Without historical perspective, American expectations seem so normal and so natural that they’re difficult to evaluate.
The fact is that the commitment to happiness in Western culture is relatively modern. Until the 18th century, Western standards encouraged, if anything, a slightly saddened approach to life, with facial expressions to match. As one dour Protestant put it, God would encourage a person who “allowed no joy or pleasure, but a kind of melancholic demeanor and austerity.” This does not mean people were actually unhappy—we simply cannot know that, because cultural standards and personal temperament interact in complicated ways. But there is no question that many people felt obliged to apologize for the moments of happiness they did encounter. Sinful humanity had best display a somewhat sorrowful humility.
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