Photographic Representations of Happiness in USA and Japan

Faculty Mentor(s)

Dr. Deirdre Johnston and Dr. Rika Hanamitsu

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Happiness is a universal emotion, but how people construct the meaning of happiness may be culturally determined. The study explores a cross-cultural comparison of the awareness, photographic representation of, and feelings associated with, experiences of everyday happiness. The research question examines whether there are differences in the construction of the meaning of happiness by American and Japanese college students. An ethnographic design was used to collect happy experiences through photographs. The sample of 200 was stratified by age range (student, young adult, middle-age, and elderly), culture and sex, with 60 college students as the sub-sample. Participants completed a pre-test employing Deiner’s Flourishing Scale (2009). Packets including a disposable camera, a Photo Release Form, and Photo Response Cards were disseminated, instructing participants to take 5 photographs during moments of happiness, over a 24-hour period. The post-test included the Flourishing Scale and questions regarding how comprehensive and typical their photos were in representing their happiness. Researchers qualitatively analyzed 300 photographs and narratives for cultural themes and dimensions by which happiness experiences vary. Coding categories were then developed and interrater reliability was assessed. Participant narratives were coded for emotional complexity according to the Levels of Emotional Awareness Scale (Lane, Quinlan, Schwartz, Walker & Zeinlin, 1990). An ANOVA was conducted to compare pre- and post-test flourishing scales to find whether reflecting on happiness significantly impacted respondents’ reported happiness. Researchers found cultural differences in Japanese and American students’ reporting of source of happiness, meaning of happiness, arousal level of happiness, awareness and cognitive processing of happy experiences, what kinds of satisfied needs engender happiness, and the impact of reflecting on happiness on one’s overall level of flourishing.


This material is based upon work supported internally by the Frost Research Center at Hope College.

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