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Research Highlight What makes people happy? The answer is more universal than expected

Companies trying to keep their staff happy with initiatives based on individual pleasures such as free drinks or fitness classes may want to rethink their approach. As a broad international survey demonstrates, meaning is a stronger predictor of happiness than pleasure, and surprisingly, this is valid across all the cultures studied.

While you may have never heard of the Chief Happiness Officer (CHO) job title, the position is a serious one. Prominent companies such as Google, SAP, Airbnb and Amazon have CHOs, and the professional network LinkedIn lists more than 4,000 of them.

That's because international companies are increasingly embracing well-being and happiness initiatives as a critical way to retain employees in a tight labour market and engage with customers all over the world. Most corporate perks take the form of yoga classes, unlimited free snacks or company retreats to ski resorts, while marketing departments try to support healthy habits related to their brands.

Meaning-based initiatives will contribute in a greater extent to the life satisfaction of workers all over the globe.

All that touchy-feely stuff is very nice, but does it really foster happiness? And importantly for international companies, are wellness programs designed in Silicon Valley headquarters suited to employees in Italy, South Africa or Japan? Many of these well-being initiatives are criticized because they adopt a monolithic, universal view of happiness, focusing on individual and pleasure-based orientations or benefits while ignoring more collective and meaningful aspects.

To better inform managers about the possible need to adapt their well-being initiatives to different cultural contexts, a team of researchers - Charlotte Gaston-Breton, Jérémy E. Lemoine, Benjamin G. Voyer and Minas N. Kastanakis - examined orientations to happiness across countries.

Traditional predictors of happiness and their limits

Social sciences research conceptualizes happiness as a multidimensional construct. Two pivotal dimensions, rooted in ancient Greek philosophy, are most often considered: hedonia and eudaimonia. The researchers define them as follows: “the hedonic pathway to happiness is reached by maximizing one's pleasurable moments, whereas the eudaimonic pathway to happiness relies on using and developing the best of oneself in the pursuit of the greater good, particularly the welfare of humankind.” The latter is often reflected through the core element of meaning.

However, the authors note cross-cultural research on happiness may have exhibited a bias toward hedonism, derived from the dominant, Western, individualist-oriented tradition, pointing out that life satisfaction, the most commonly-used outcome variable in the well-being literature, is often related to pleasure-seeking. The pursuit of a meaningful life, both for oneself and the others, conveys a more collective aspect than the hedonic concept of pleasurable life. It can be argued that it is therefore more relevant to capture the cultural diversity that exists between and within countries.

The authors even argue that a more relevant orientation to happiness framework should include spirituality in addition to pleasure and meaning, though of course spirituality at large (a broader definition than simple religiosity) encompasses a search for meaning. Indeed, they add, the collective dimension of eudaimonia may offer a better understanding of cultural variations, particularly between individualist and collectivist countries. Previous empirical studies have already demonstrated that “personal achievement and the maximization of pleasure lead to greater happiness for North-Americans while social harmony and interdependent self-construal contribute more to East-Asian happiness.”

The challenge of measuring happiness across continents and cultures

To investigate simultaneously how hedonic and eudaimonic orientations to happiness varied across cultures, the researchers worked with a panel provider to question 2,615 people from 12 countries about their life satisfaction, asking them to rate a number of items about pleasure, meaning and spirituality. They chose countries that both offered cultural diversity (individualist and collectivist contexts) and represented under-studied countries. 

They found that pleasure, meaning and spirituality orientations were weighted differently across countries. For example, Nigeria, India and the UAE scored high for meaning and spirituality, while Australia, Germany and Russia ranked low in meaning and pleasure. “These differences in the weight of each dimension, however, do not affect the modelization of the orientations of pleasure, meaning and spirituality toward life satisfaction,” write the researchers, who conclude that “the magnitude of their effects do not vary across the 12 countries.”

This first of its kind, robust cross-cultural study shows that life satisfaction can be universally approached, questioning traditional binary conceptualizations of culture (individualist/collectivist). Most importantly, it shows that for all studied countries, meaning is a stronger predictor of life satisfaction than pleasure.

Meaningful routes to well-being for managers

If this research suggests that there are universal pathways to happiness, other than the traditionally accepted search for pleasure, does it mean that a global culture, with converging (if not homogenized) values, is emerging? The idea has been around since the 2000s, when the world wide web was growing rapidly. The authors of the study do say that their results may reflect patterns specific to an Internet-connected population, as an online survey was used. 

More generally, the findings are valuable for managers wishing to design smarter corporate incentives - pleasure-based (e.g. financial rewards) or meaning-based (e.g. altruistic time allocation) - to promote staff well-being anywhere in the world. But, stress the researchers, “meaning-based initiatives will contribute in a greater extent to the life satisfaction of workers all over the globe.” Also, marketing managers may wish to promote products (say, a smartphone) by emphasising the pleasure derived from it (taking photos) or its life-enhancing functions (connecting with loved ones).


Charlotte Gaston-Breton - ESCP Business School Charlotte Gaston-Breton Professor of marketing at ESCP Business School (Madrid campus)
Jérémy E. Lemoine Jérémy E. Lemoine Lecturer at the University of East London, visiting lecturer at ESCP
Benjamin G. Voyer - ESCP Business School Benjamin G. Voyer Professor of Entrepreneurship, ESCP Business School (London campus)
Minas N. Kastanakis - ESCP Business School Minas N. Kastanakis Professor of Marketing, ESCP Business School (London campus)