What is Happiness?

March 18, 2013—With a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, Assistant Professor Becky Hsu has assembled a team of sociologists to discover what happiness means to different people.

A professor in the sociology department, Hsu studies religion, economic sociology, and organizations as her primary research interests. For the past two years, she has been laying groundwork for her second book, which will analyze the ancient Chinese concept of fu.

Precursor to xingfu, the modern Chinese adjective for “happy,” fu has a variety of connected meanings that change as society in China changes.

“Fu can be translated as ‘happiness,’ but it’s a lot deeper and more multifaceted than a nice feeling. A lot of times, people have equated fu with the Greek eudaemonia, which is something that Aristotle talked about. It’s the notion of what makes something ‘the good life,’” Hsu explained.

“Traditionally, fu is very family-centered in the Chinese notion. There’s this saying that goes, ‘Happiness is four generations under one roof,’ from the great-grandparent to the great-grandchild,” she continued. “But Chinese society has undergone so much change. There was the socialist era with the Communist Party, then there was the government trying to regulate the family, and now, there’s globalization. What does fu mean in China after all of that?”

Hsu was first inspired to research the notion of happiness in Chinese culture two years ago. As a fan of the seminal sociological work Habits of the Heart, which examines the relationship between religion and morality in American society, Hsu thought it would be fascinating to ask similar questions of a country sometimes seen as a religious opposite of the United States.

She was also intrigued by the recent trend in international politics for countries to rank and compare the level of happiness of their citizens, despite the fact that the measurements are scientifically suspect.

“When you see these studies, answers are based on data from one question asked to people from all over the world: ‘How happy are you on a scale of 1 to 10?’” Hsu said. “Obviously, there are problems with that. What does ‘happiness’ mean? What is the difference between 6 and 7? I want to make these surveys better.”

For her project, Hsu has assembled a dream team of collaborators, including Deborah Davis and Anna Sun from Yale University and Kenyon College, respectively, and Georgetown’s José Casanova, professor of sociology and senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Casanova, who had already presented research on cultural notions of happiness, introduced Hsu to Richard Madsen, “the premier scholar on China and religion,” said Hsu, and original co-author of Habits of the Heart.

“After I put the team together in fall 2011, my first year at Georgetown, I was able to get funding from the Office of International Initiatives in the provost’s office,” Hsu said. She then wrote a proposal that was approved by the John Templeton Foundation, which awarded her $850,000 to continue the research.

“It’s a three-year timeline. It starts now. The first year we’re going to do some trial field work in Hong Kong this summer, where we’ll meet with religious leaders and talk about what kinds of moral ideas we might look for when we do interviews with normal people,” Hsu explained.

“We’ll be talking to people in the north, middle, and south of China and only in urban areas, since you can argue that whatever people are doing in the urban areas will spread out and become the standard.”

Hsu hopes that her upcoming book can inspire “empathy” between China and the United States, which have long seemed culturally antagonistic. She plans to publish the results in both English and Chinese, so that Chinese readers can better understand how Americans view Chinese society.

“Happiness is a topic everyone can relate to, and yet there are going to be differences,” she said. “I think those differences should help everybody understand what motivates people to do what they’re doing and why they say what they’re saying.”

—Brittany Coombs