It is an unhappy truism that we live in turbulent and troubled times. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended lives and destabilised societies the world over. In doing so, it has prompted much reflection and rethinking about how we ought to live and what matters to us. Such re-evaluation is perhaps particularly evident and necessary in western societies, in which there is some evidence – if one is feeling hopeful – of a shift in priorities towards more sustainable ways of being.
For people in relatively individualistic societies, we have been painfully reminded how precious and vital our relationships and communities are. In response to the numerous employees who have taken to working from home and would like to continue in some form, many companies are implementing longer term remote-working plans. And if the pandemic may have been in part caused by humans living in disharmony with nature, the importance of connecting sustainably with nature is increasingly recognised, with such engagement among the best predictors of how well people have coped with the situation.
For many years, voices around the world have been articulating the concerns that the pandemic is now highlighting with devastating effect: the fragility of modern civilisation, the importance of supportive relationships, the need to live more harmoniously with nature, and more besides. Given the current chaos, there is now perhaps greater receptivity to alternative ways of thinking and being – including embracing philosophies and practices from cultures other than our own.
Developing new perspectives
My own field of psychology has been animated by similar processes of reflection in recent years. Although the field aspires to universality, and is researched and practised the world over, it is relatively western-centric. An influential paper in Nature pointed out that much of the discipline’s research is conducted by and on people from “WEIRD” places – western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic – the United States in particular. As such, the field has been influenced by American values and traditions such as individualism and self-determination.
When considering wellbeing, for instance, psychology has emphasised its more individualistic and self-assertive forms. This has meant focusing on outcomes like personal life satisfaction and what are known as “high arousal” positive emotions – those that are energised and intense – such as joy or excitement.
Of course, these experiences are not intrinsically American or western per se. They are found and valued globally, as captured by the annual Gallup World Poll, which in turn is the basis for the United Nations’ World Happiness Report (which ranks countries in terms of citizens’ self-reported life satisfaction).
But some cultures have also identified and valued other forms or aspects of wellbeing. For instance, eastern cultures tend to place greater emphasis on low arousal positive emotions such as peace, calmness and tranquillity, and on associated ideas around balance and harmony.
Similarly, in contrast to the relative individualism of the west, eastern cultures have also highlighted the importance of relationships and living in harmony with nature. It’s not that these principles do not matter elsewhere, including in the west. Indeed, research shows they may be universally appreciated. But their importance has generally been accentuated in eastern cultures and downplayed in western ones.
In light of such considerations, people are making increasing efforts to redress the western-centric nature of psychology and develop more globally comprehensive and inclusive perspectives. One such example is a new Global Wellbeing Initiative (with which I have had the privilege of being involved), a collaboration between Gallup and Wellbeing for Planet Earth (a Japanese research foundation). Although Gallup has excelled in assessing wellbeing globally over recent years, its measures – relating to life satisfaction and high arousal positive emotions – are subject to the charges of western-centricity raised above.
In response to such criticism, this year’s World Poll features several new items which reflect more eastern perspectives on wellbeing. These include questions around low-arousal positive emotions, balance and harmony, and our relationships and connections.
There are also even more ambitious plans to incorporate still other global perspectives in future. For instance, many cultures have traditions and ethics relating to deep notions of hospitality and generosity (including and even especially towards strangers), from the Māori ideal of manaakitanga to the Jewish principle of hachnassat orchim. These too can expand our conceptualisation and appreciation of the scope and dynamics of wellbeing.
Even though such ideas might be emphasised by specific cultures, we may well find they matter globally. The unprecedented turmoil of 2020 does seem to be heightening global appreciation for principles such as relational wellbeing, living in balance and harmony, and developing more sustainable relationships with the natural world. As we move forward, we will need to learn from one another in these kinds of ways to develop more sustainable visions and ways of life.
Tim Lomas is a lecturer in Positive Psychology, University of East London.