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Happiness and Good Human Conduct: A Cross Cultural Exploration

Keith MacIsaac

2019 Irving and Jeanne Glovin Award Winner


Keith MacIsaac (centre) at the 2019 FASS Essay

Competition awards ceremony.


Also pictured are Dr. Martha Radice (left),

Associate Professor, Department of Sociology &

Social Anthropology;

and Dr. George Mencher (right),

nephew of Irving & Jeanne Glovin. 




Happiness in Western society is often seen as the overarching goal for life and associated with private good feelings linked to an overall sense of well-being. This paper presents an anthropological overview of aspects of life that are markers of happiness in ‘Other’ cultures, and relate these markers to what they indicate about good human conduct within the cultural context of the individual societies explored. The guiding question for this research is: How is happiness experienced and pursued in different cultural contexts, and what do the expectations and values given to happiness say about ideas of good human conduct within specific cultural contexts? As Walker and Kavedzija (2015) argue, “How people conceive of, evaluate, and pursue (or not) happiness can reveal much about how they live and the values they hold dear” (p. 1). By exploring what makes people happy in different cultures, I hope to find out what this can tell us about good human conduct. What makes people happy does not cover the whole spectrum of what could be considered good human conduct and inversely, what constitutes good human conduct does not always make people happy. Yet the research I conducted for this paper suggests there is a strong link between happiness and good human conduct in many cultural contexts.

To begin the research, I intentionally avoid joining the social science discussion on how to define exactly what happiness is (see Ahmed, 2010; Bartram, 2012; Cieslik, 2015; and Thin, 2012). Providing a concrete definition to the idea of happiness – and the practices, values, and experiences that surround it – would frame this paper in an ethnocentric way, ultimately putting constraints on what this exploration would be able to reveal. Instead, I hope to focus on what ethnographic research in a variety of non-Western field sites has found out about happiness within their respective cultural contexts. Good human conduct will be defined as morally good behavior and virtuous conduct that is judged as good by others, and therefore other-oriented (Walker and Kavedzija, 2015). Through these frameworks this essay will use the pursuit of happiness and the values, beliefs, and behaviours associated with it to reveal what links good human conduct and happiness in particular cultural contexts.

To begin I will discuss shifts in happiness in an Ethiopian community as it transitions from communal subsistence agriculture to market-based agriculture and how this change impacts ideas of good human conduct. Next, happiness through object-affect relationships with plants in Mozambique will explore an alternative route to happiness and demonstrate individual’s ability to exhibit good human conduct despite exclusion from exchange-based intimacy systems. We will then move to investigate the pursuit of happiness in the extremes of conflict and combat in Guinea-Bissau as young men find ways to engage in socially expected human conduct through joining militias. Moving from African examples, the essay will look at collective suffering in the Micronesian island of Yap and how it demonstrates good human conduct and provides parallels to happiness. Following this, examples of happiness through experiences of tranquility and collective-effervescence against the backdrop of hardship in Peruvian Amazon subsistence living demonstrate a strong link between individual choice in pursuit of good human conduct. Finally, rural Chinese affect-forecasting and intergenerational happiness point to shifting values and conflict between generations as to what good human conduct entails. Through these examples, I aim to demonstrate the variety in pursuits and manifestations of happiness across cultures and the variation of culturally appropriate good human conduct that accompanies these practices.

Shifts in Happiness in Ethiopia

Dena Freeman (2015) offers a dynamic look at the cultural practices in the community of Masho in the Gamo Highlands in Ethiopia at two distinct times – in the 1990’s when the community relied on subsistence agriculture and was highly collective, and again in the 2000’s once market-based cash crops had been introduced and the community had become much more individualistic. Freeman’s findings on happiness and culturally appropriate behaviour in the two different decades points to changing social dynamics that brought happiness to community members in different ways and that shaped local notions of good human conduct.

Freeman’s ethnographic research in Masho in the 1990’s revealed that the community did not often vocalize that happiness was something that could be achieved, but seemed to achieve it regularly as a default, based on observations of their experiences of joy, smiling, peace and reconciliation (Freeman, 2015, p. 160). The highly social and collective nature of the community meant that individuals often encountered each other and worked together to meet their common basic needs. Peace and fertility were highly valued and through “playing, drinking coffee with neighbours, and quickly resolving any interpersonal conflicts” (p. 162) they maintained smooth social relations which contributed to baseline experiences of happiness and enjoyment for life (Freeman, 2015, p. 159; 162). In the context of Masho in the 1990’s, it would appear as though happiness and good human conduct were one in the same. The cultural practices that were key to the collective functioning of the community – which in Masho would indicate good human conduct – were also what contributed to the overall happiness. Shortly after Freeman completed their fieldwork, the community went through a substantial transformation.

In the late 1990’s a NGO working in Ethiopia came to Masho to implement a development plan that would introduce the community to growing cash crops of apples, stimulating them to participate in the larger market economy. The implementation of this development project, as well as the conversion of many residents to Pentecostal Christianity, saw Masho undergo significant changes to the cultural norms and values of the community. The collectivist social nature that had previously dominated the daily life in Masho was replaced by more individualistic, capitalist-based practices. This shift in practices lead to substantial inequality, as farming was now surplus capital based and no longer the traditional subsistence agriculture. The community went through ‘growing pains’ as they shifted from subsistence to market-based agriculture. Some who were successful at adapting to the new practices experienced increases in happiness due to surplus capital, while many others who were unsuccessful experienced a significant decrease in happiness. This paradigm shift in what made people happy led to a “weakening of the social fabric and an increase in resentment and jealousy” and also created a need for a re-evaluation of what good human conduct in Masho should look like (Freeman, 2015, p. 166).

The collective behaviour that had previously been so integral to good human conduct and happiness in Masho had been replaced by individualistic/household based competition and inequality. The community found a way to recover from such a shift through many converting to Pentecostal Christianity. Involvement in the church saw a reconfiguration and reorientation of self; new converts participating in classes that taught them “a new way to view themselves and the world, a new narrative, and a new set of values” (Freeman, 2015, p. 167-168). This led many in the community to have a new understanding of good human conduct as no longer being integrally tied to collectivist behaviours but more related to spiritual devotion and rituals within the church. This, in turn, led to a means for the community to once again find ways to happiness on their own terms.

Alternate Routes to Happiness in Mozambique

We will now explore more of an abstract anthropological look at happiness in Julie Archambault’s (2016) article Taking Love Seriously in Human-Plant Relations in Mozambique. It focuses on finding what human-plant relations in the suburb of Inhambane can tell us about happiness and good human conduct. Through affect-object relationships with plants, young men display incredible dedication to gardening and devotion to their plants which inadvertently serves as an effective critique of contemporary practices of courtship and intimacy in Mozambique.

In the journal article, Archambault observes that there has been a commodification of intimacy and reveals that the materialistic nature of love in Mozambique has made participation in courtship inaccessible for many young men who lack employment. Archambault references Lynn Thomas and Jennifer Cole (2009, p. 23) stating: “Africans have long forged intimate attachments through exchange relationships”, which has been influenced by contemporary consumerist practices, leading to a high level of material exchange as part of intimacy. This has resulted in many young men who lack the financial resources to participate in materialistic practices of courtship and intimacy to turn elsewhere to practice displays of commitment, dedication and love; mainly through the practice of gardening and affect relationship with plants. But what does this tell us about happiness and good human conduct in the suburb of Inhambane?

It is necessary to deconstruct the young men’s loving relationships that they have with plants. Commodification of intimacy has various effects on relationships and often creates a need for people to seek out new intimacies that could be deemed more pure (Archambault, 2016, p. 258). The men who participated in the research indicated that the love they had for their plants was more pure than human relationships and they had no concerns of the relations being tainted by deceit or alternative motives – fears surrounding relationships that are quite substantially grounded considering the commodification of intimacy within the culture (Archambault, 2016). These, perhaps surprising, affect-object love relationships experienced by the young men who garden in Mozambique tell us a few things about happiness and good human conduct.

First, there is a recognition of the value of love, kindness, dedication, and beauty. Since the young men do not have access to the financial means of participating in courtship practices in their society they have turned elsewhere and been able to find a form of happiness that is uniquely genuine and abstracted from the societal norms. Furthermore, the authenticity of the intimacy that the men have with their plants points to an idealized view of relationships that the men recognize they would not be able to achieve in a relationship with a woman. Unlike humans, plants do not have the ability to possess alternative motives and are not deceitful or manipulative (Archambault, 2016). This demonstrates a belief in good human conduct that is desired by the men: “Human-plant relations are what gardeners wish their relationships with people could be” and they “inspire novel templates of intimacy” (Archambault, 2016, p. 259). What is interesting to consider is that the young women in Inhambane are behaving in a manner that is most likely in line with contemporary Mozambique happiness values and goals, while simultaneously exhibiting behaviour that is in line with what Mozambique society would consider good human conduct. However, this is a speculation as the research conducted focuses on male gardeners and offers little insight into the wider experiences in the society.

Militia and Happiness in Guinea-Bissau

Henrik E. Vigh (2015) spent 15 years on and off conducting anthropological field work in Guinea-Bissau and observed the perpetual cycle of conflict and suffering that dominates life there. In line with the idea of “affective forecasting” presented by Stafford (2015), young men in Guinea-Bissau have visions of happiness that they aim to reach through participating in militia forces. Their participation in conflict is often void of collective vision or ideological standpoints and the experience of happiness they strive for is often illusive and elusive (Vigh, 2015). Due to the perpetual conflict that has highlighted Guinea-Bissau since its independence, young men find themselves with a lack of livelihoods or possibilities, and often experience social displacement and exclusion due to lack of economic, social, and political agency (Vigh, 2015).

The factors that drive many young men to join militias are closely tied to ideas of good human conduct in Guinea-Bissau. Similar to elsewhere in Africa (see Archambault, 2016), ideas of masculinity and social value are tied into a man’s ability to provide for his immediate family and relatives. In addition, and in line with Archambault (2015) findings in Mozambique, dating and intimacy are closely linked to gift giving and consumerism, which is impossible for young men to participate in because of their lack of resources. Due to the ongoing cycles of conflict and suffering in Guinea-Bissau, many young men lack the economic and social resources to provide for their families or engage in intimacy practices and perpetually exist in a state where it is “increasingly impossible for the young men… to gain the social positions and possibilities expected of them, leaving them detached and distanced from who they ‘ought’ to be” (Vigh, 2015, p. 99). It is under these circumstances that young men have been able to find happiness through the dangerous acts of militia life.

Despite the risk of physical harm from armed combat, all of the young militia men that Vigh interacted with valued militia involvement since it was “a way of gaining entry into a social or patrimonial network, providing not just access to flows of resources and possibilities but security through mutual dependence and obligation of protection” (Vigh, 2015, p. 100). Men who joined the militia were granted access to material resources which they in turn used to provide for their family and which enabled them to participate in social intimacy practices of the culture, both of which are features of good human conduct in the Guinea-Bissau context (Vigh, 2015). Vigh writes that “the most obvious connection between mobilization [into a militia], happiness, and well-being is, in this perspective, that it offers provisions in a landscape of scarcity” (p. 103) and that it brought men social status and the ability to be “seen as a person of worth with the ability to act and attract” (p. 103). Through these avenues it is apparent that participating in militia activities, while dangerous, enabled young men to experience happiness through security and access to resources that militia life brought, and allowed them to engage in behaviours of good human conduct in an environment of conflict and struggle.

Suffering and Happiness in Micronesia

In C. Jason Throop’s (2015) ethnographic work in the Micronesian island of Yap, the local culture demonstrated a high degree of ambivalence toward happiness and places value instead on suffering. Happiness was acceptable but good human conduct meant focusing on the wellbeing of others – the question of how someone could experience a maintained emotion of happiness while others in their community were still suffering played into local experiences of happiness and good human conduct (Throop, 2015).

Throop makes an interesting observation on the distinction between emotions of happiness and moods of happiness in Yap. Through observation and interviews Throop found that there was a cultural belief that people who are experiencing emotions of happiness had shifted their focus from social obligations and concern towards their friends, family, and community to focus on their own happiness, wellbeing, and comfort in the moment (Throop, 2015, p. 53-54). It was seen to be somewhat socially irresponsible to experience emotions of happiness and these emotions were often experienced with much ambivalence and expected to be fleeting and precarious. On the other hand, the author noticed many activities and everyday dealings in people’s lives included an atmospheric mood of happiness yet, “talk of experiences of suffering came with relative ease for the majority of people” but “most individuals had difficulty talking openly about their experiences of [happiness]” and often denied having experienced much happiness in their lives (Throop, 2015, p. 60). What Throop did find was a collective sense of happiness that was a by-product and unintended consequence of “mutual suffering that arose from working together” with a shared sense of “purpose, attachment, accomplishment, and social belonging” (Throop, 2015, p. 62).

But what do Yapese experiences of happiness and suffering tell us about their beliefs of good human conduct? The culture has a strong connection to its past, present, and future. Individuals revealed that their explicit experiences with happiness were often confined to childhood, before they were encumbered by the responsibilities, duties and expectations that were part of Yapese social responsibilities to their families and communities. This suggests that in Yapese society, good human conduct is strongly integrated into the community as a whole, to the point that suffering in solidarity with, and as sacrifice for others is more important than individual emotions of happiness. Andrew Sayers’ idea, cited in (Cieslik, 2015, p. 430) , that “wellbeing as a practical accomplishment, where people ‘work at’ challenging situations in life and difficult emotions that accompany them” is aptly demonstrated by Yapese culture to that point that the practice of suffering has become ingrained in their experiences of happiness. The notions of suffering for and suffering-with others was of high value on the island of Yap and it was an integral aspect of good human conduct within its culture (Throop, 2015 p. 63).

Amazonian Happiness in Tranquility

Harry Walker’s (2015) ethnographic study of Amazonian Urarina in Peru found that happiness in the context of this tribe was highly connected to a sense of tranquility and joy. The behaviours that led to indicators of happiness could be described as collective effervescence – a state of moral temperament which is strengthened through temporary moments of collective positive experience (Walker, 2015, p. 179). The goal of tranquility, within the society, as a marker of happiness was worked on and achieved through various means. Good human conduct within this society was a part of a lifestyle that made tranquility possible despite barriers that might arise. It was sought after and achieved through communal interdependence in substance- based living, and routinely reinforced through social interactions.

For Urarina people, the fact that of hardship and struggle was common in their daily lives did not devalue the worth of their way of living – those who had given up life in the forest to engage in urban economic systems were seen to be morally inferior – and community members valued the flexibility and freedom that their lifestyle provided while maintaining that they should live in “accordance with the same general values and aspirations as previous generations” (Walker, 2015, p. 180-181). This acceptance of hardships and struggle as part of daily life helped to reinforce the value of tranquility and helped it give rise to happiness. Tranquility – and practices of good human conduct associated with it such as generosity, self-control, and respect for others – was demonstrated through “harmonious sociality, full of wit and good humor, while avoiding heated emotions”, and individuals were free to carry out peaceful and meaningful work “especially tasks dedicated towards the satisfaction of the needs or desires of others” (Walker, 2015, p. 182 -183). Through engaging in meaningful work that was within an individual’s capabilities, Urarina people could reach a state of flow through exercising control in difficult situations in which the potential suffering brought on by the task ultimately became satisfying (Walker, 2015, p. 184; Csikszentmihalyi, 1992).

Urarina society – while holding a general consensus on values and requirements that displayed good human conduct – allowed for a great deal of individuality in choices, which permitted considerable variation in how individuals pursue the goal of the good life (Walker, 2015, p. 185). In line with the culture’s focus on tranquility, Urarina society held individual autonomy and self-determination in high regard. People rarely ever told others what to do, and acts of moral control over others were uncommon as the society valued emotional comfort and did not think there was one single way to live a good life (Walker, 2015).

So far, this description of Urarina society suggests an eudaimonic, collective experience of happiness. All previous examples that evoke a sense of tranquility are longer term social dimensions that lead to the good life and happiness in Urarina society. Yet, people do experience outright and fleeting joy, or a hedonic conception of happiness, which is commonly brought on by the anticipation of a shared meal of meat when hunters return with a large kill. Since the society does not practice individual self-sufficiency but focuses on collective survival, hunters returning with a kill is of great joy to the group. It means that food will be shared, and people will experience a sense of fulfilment which puts them closer to the state of tranquility that is so highly valued and associated with happiness.

While the anticipation of sharing meat can bring great joy, the practices associated with communal consumption are also influenced by good human conduct. “People eat only what they have been offered to eat, such that food sharing forms part of the hospitable exchanges that will be reciprocated in the future” (Walker, 2015, p. 189). This aspect of Urarina society is a good example of the experience of happiness and good human conduct of the culture as a whole. Individual pursuits (such as hunting) are highly valued yet inherently social and not in conflict with the social group but often directly in support of it – a balancing of individual autonomy and collective dependence provides deep satisfaction and is of central concern to the society as a whole – influencing what is considered good human conduct and stimulating experiences of happiness (Walker, 2015).

Happiness, Wealth, and Intergenerational Coordination in Rural China

Happiness and its intergenerational pursuit is discussed in Charles Stafford’s (2015) exploration into affective forecasting of happiness in rural China. Stafford begins his article by acknowledging the separation between happiness as a motive, and happiness as an outcome; in the case of affective forecasting of happiness, he believes that: “We tend to overestimate the extent to which supposedly wonderful life events will make us happy and the extent to which supposedly catastrophic life events will make us unhappy” (Stafford, 2015, p. 25; 26). Stafford makes these statements to set up his discussion on how families in rural China pursue wealth as a means of achieving happiness.

In contemporary rural China there is a trend toward pursuing an accumulation of wealth as a means of achieving happiness that on the surface level is in line with the traditional values of intergenerational cooperation. “People are keenly aware that chasing money (and also power in various forms, because they are closely interlinked) is a pervasive social fact at this particular historical moment and something that everyone must engage with in one form or another” (Stafford, 2015, p. 30). The intergenerational pursuit of wealth leading to happiness is begun by parents who, understandably, want the best for their children and believe happiness can be achieved through wealth. They work extremely hard and save to be able to give their children opportunities for education and luxuries. It is expected that their children, in turn, will work hard and achieve greater success and wealth than their parents, providing security for the family, thus leading to the advancement of the family’s prosperity, despite the short and long term personal costs to individuals (Stafford, 2015).

Stafford’s article does not explicitly state what universally indicates happiness in this Chinese context, but the surface level values of the practices of intergenerational familial prosperity point to a desire, and expectation, of increased happiness with increased wealth. They exemplify Stafford’s (2015) idea of affective forecasting, in which people make predictions of what will make them happy without having ever experienced it before and not truly knowing if it will indeed lead to happiness. In the context of rural China, individuals predict what will make others (parents/children) happy and disregard their own personal ideals of happiness in the name of family prosperity. Yet, as Stafford demonstrates, this is an idealization of the pursuit of happiness in the name of others, as in actual practice both parents and children can be dissatisfied with the process and outcomes.

Stafford writes: “advancement/sophistication of these children – which is precisely what most parents aspire to for their offspring (and certainly it is what they help pay for) – is also something that arguably turns them into fundamentally different kinds of persons than their parents” (Stafford, 2015, p. 37). In some instances, educated children, arguably influenced by Western ideals of individualism, become motivated by the notion of personal happiness and success – in contrast to, and in many cases at odds with, traditional other focused family values – and work towards these goals with the belief that it is what they deserve (Stafford, 2015). But what does the pursuit of happiness through wealth – traditionally collective and other focused, but now facing resistance from the educated youth that are a product of the process – tell us about good human conduct in rural China?

Traditionally in a rural Chinese context, good human conduct was highly linked to family, and decisions and behaviour were strongly tied to intergenerational coordination with a focus on the family unit as opposed to the individual. The focus on familial prosperity is exemplified through expectations and willingness to sacrifice personal comforts and to work hard for the benefit of the family, with a focus on the collective goals over individual desires. However, there is increasingly a competing discourse that some of the younger generation have been pursuing which allows happiness to include self-fulfillment and individual achievement. This has produced two competing indicators of good human conduct and has created tensions between older and younger generations, which has created a need for careful navigation of the old and new, often with consequences of individual intergenerational discontent due to the miscalculated affective forecasting of happiness. While there is likely intergenerational disagreement between what truly constitutes good human conduct in rural China, it could be expected that finding a balance between collective prosperity and individual happiness will become an effective indicator of good conduct.


What makes people happy does not cover the whole spectrum of what could be considered good human conduct and inversely, but through the research and review in this essay of existing anthropological studies, there can be a strong link made between happiness and good human conduct in a variety of cultural contexts. “Happiness is not, and can never be, a singular or static phenomenon” (Throop, 2015, p. 63). Similarly, good human conduct is versatile, dynamic and situational. Both happiness and good human conduct are not inert but ambiguous and based on cultural experiences and on expectations of individuals, groups, and societies.

This review of ethnographic literature on happiness provides a cross-cultural understanding on the variations in human experience and expectations in the pursuit of happiness. Collectivist behaviours seen in Masho Ethiopia, the island of Yap in Micronesia, Urarina society in the Peruvian Amazon, and rural China, were strongly linked to good human conduct, however the confines that these social systems created also presented barriers to individual happiness, with the greater good, in many cases, coming before individual comfort or desires (Freeman, 2015; Stafford, 2015; Throop, 2015; Walker, 2015). The research has also shown that the belief that certain behaviours or actions will eventually lead to happiness – the practice of affect forecasting – is relevant in cultures, but the motivators of behaviour manifest differently in various contexts and environments (Archambault, 2016; Stafford, 2015; Vigh, 2015). Stafford (2015) aptly states that “the things we are motivated to aim for in the first place, are always culturally and historically constituted” (p. 27). The research has also pointed to the idea that while happiness is frequently seen as an end point, people often have to find ways to navigate happiness in the face of hardships (Archambault, 2016; Freeman, 2015; Stafford, 2015; Throop, 2015; Vigh, 2015; Walker, 2015). As the research suggests, there is substantial evidence that happiness and good human conduct are both related to and interact with each other, yet the research also demonstrates that providing an encompassing definition or indicators for each would be difficult. What has been shown is that good human conduct is often based in morally good behaviours that is deemed to be virtuous and acceptable by other members of the society and is therefore other-oriented (Walker and Kavedzija, 2015). Good human conduct can put constraint on happiness as individual values, wants, and desires are often of less importance in the other-oriented focus (Stafford, 2015; Throop, 2015). Happiness and good human conduct within individual cultures takes careful navigation to satisfy both individual needs and societal expectations. This research indicates that there is a connection between good human conduct and happiness, however what makes people happy, and the behaviours of good human conduct that often accompany or define that happiness, are unique to the cultures in which they occur.



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Happiness and Good Human Conduct: A Cross Cultural Exploration by Keith MacIsaac is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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