“The opposite of sadness is not happiness”

The lesson 2 of Positive Psychology class at the Penn State University World Campus started with these words:

Did you know that the opposite of sadness is not happiness? The opposite of sadness is actually…the absence of sadness.What this means is that if you could get rid of everything that is making you sad, you still would not be happy.You would simply be not sad.Psychological research has discovered that our negative emotions such as sadness, fear, anger, anxiety, and our positive emotions such as joy, excitement, adoration, and serenity exist as two independent systems.That is why, if you want to be a truly happy person, it is not enough to deal with the negative feelings in your life.You also need to know how to create positive feelings.

I was shaken with the revelation when I read these words.This could be the core to the difference between Japanese and the majority of the rest of the world.Japanese is the culture of pursuit of avoiding sadness and discomfort, whereas many cultures of the world are of pursuit of happiness.Look at the Americans.They often quote the Declaration of Independence phrase, “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Could this be why that people from other parts of the world can not read the expression on the face of Japanese people?Is this why Japanese did not panic or shown sadness and grief in 2011 Great Earthquake and Tsunami?Is this why Japanese audience do not respond spontaneously to great live performances?Because Japanese are trained from the day they are born to pursue un-sadness and not happiness?Is this why Japanese mainstream products are not great by today’s global standard, because the absence of sadness or lack of bad surprise is no longer relevant?

Of course,  minority of Japanese are very happy.  It is just that this concept of Japanese culture of not pursuing happiness but pursuing the absence of sadness seems to explain so many puzzling things about the research I took part for corporate employee and consumer behavior in the past.For instance, globally conducted workplace user satisfaction survey almost always  have much lower satisfaction rate in Japan than the rest of the world.Latin countries often have high satisfaction rate, despite their harsher workplace environment.In surveys and home visit interviews, consumers are so focused on lack of bad surprise rather than delight.Often, Japanese consumers say that the lack of bad surprise IS delight.

Thinking about it further, I realize the children who grew up with exposure to cultures outside of Japan seem to pursue happiness rather than un-sadness.I am one such example.  My children and many of their friends, many young people whom I work with who are younger than age 35 tend to be happiness pursuers too.But in this super aged Japanese society with continuing low birth rate, I am guessing that there will be bigger percentage of un-sadness culture people for the next 20 years or so.

What does it all mean?

I guess choosing to be happy will not get rid of sadness and discomfort in life.It sure is fun though.


1 thought on ““The opposite of sadness is not happiness””

  1. Very interesting article. I agree with the described “avoidance of sadness” strategy. As Japanese may try to avoid sadness, Westerners may try to avoid unhappiness. But possibly Western style often is even not just a negativity avoidance strategy, but rather one of an active pursuit of positive affect. I am currently also writing about how happiness can vary across cultures and I found that e.g., Eastern traditions adapt a more ambivalent view towards happiness as with it also comes unhappiness. (see http://www.mathias-sager.com) It is that dialectic that Asian cultures strive to balance, often also by spiritual means. Western cultures put more emphasis on the importance of happiness as an ultimate goal of life and therefore try to avoid unhappiness as a primary strategy.
    You have a very interesting blog. I have just started to read, but I will spend more time as I feel you provide important insight into unique Japanese culture. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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