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National differences in reported subjective well-being: Why do they occur?

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There are marked variations between nations in reported subjective well-being (SWB), but the explanations for this diversity have not been fully explored. It is possible that the differences are entirely due to true variability in SWB, but it is also reasonable that the differences may be due to factors related to self-report measurement such as variation across nations in whether it is desirable to say one is happy. At a substantive level, there might be differences in the norms governing the experience of emotion such that cultural differences in SWB are due to affective regulation. Pacific Rim countries (e.g., Japan, the People's Republic of China, and S. Korea) appear to have lower SWB than their material circumstances warrant, and the U.S.A. has higher SWB than is predicted based on its income per person. The genesis of these differences was explored by comparing students in S. Korea, Japan, and the People's Republic of China to students in the U.S.A., and it was concluded that: (1) The Pacific Rim subjects score lower on both happiness and life satisfaction in both absolute terms and when income is controlled, (2) There probably is not a general negative response set in the Pacific Rim which causes lower SWB, as evidenced by the fact that the Asians express dissatisfaction in some areas (e.g., education and self) but not in other areas (e.g., social relationships), (3) Artifacts are not causing the lower reported SWB, (4) The general suppression of mood in the Pacific Rim is unlikely to be the cause of SWB differences, but Chinese students do appear to avoid negative affect, (5) SWB is no less important and salient in Japan and S. Korea, but does appear to be a less central concern in China, and (6) There are different patterns of well-being depending on whether life satisfaction or hedonic balance are considered.

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Our sincere thanks are given to Alex Michalos for organizing the world student SWB project, and for providing us with the data. We also thank Professor Michael Botwin of California State University, Fresno, for his assistance in collecting the U.S. data. In Korea, we express our gratitude to Keehak Lee whose assistance in typing and arranging the Korean questionnaires was very helpful. We express our appreciation to Xiao-ming Zhu of Hangzhou University and Ling Shao of Zhejian Institute of Technology for their assistance in recruiting subjects. Finally, our thanks are given to Marissa Diener for her comments on this paper.

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Diener, E., Suh, E.M., Smith, H. et al. National differences in reported subjective well-being: Why do they occur?. Soc Indic Res 34, 7–32 (1995).

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