Wisdom from Culture
Culture is coded wisdom, says Kenyan environmental political activist Wangarĩ Muta. Mark Twain, author of classic American literature (notably Huckleberry Finn) says that “travel is fatal is prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness… broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Often, modern science often confirms these time-attested truths and insights. Culture helps individuals organize themselves, their views of the world and govern their behaviours so as to meet societal and community norms. Culture is essentially an implicitly-accepted understanding by which individuals organize themselves in relation to their environments and to other individuals within shared communities. Psychologists have broadly distinguished between high-context and low-context cultures. High-context cultures are those that emphasize social harmony and interpersonal relationships, and have a strong reliance on contextual cues for guiding actions. Conversely, a low-context culture is typically individualistic and are much more reliant on direct, explicit communication cues to convey group norms. One high-context culture that has been the subject of countless cross-cultural comparisons in psychological research is Japan. A country steeped in rich history, (not to mention and a period of seclusion for 220 years from 1663-1853 because of a strict isolationist foreign policy), Japanese culture features, and comprises concepts, terms and principles that have guided its citizens – socially and psychologically, about the ideals in life. Here are three of note.
Mono no aware: The Wistful Realization of the Ephemeral
Pronounced “mono no awa-reh” (物の哀れ), this concept generally reflects the wistful sentiment from realizing the impermanence of one’s experiences. “When was the very last time your parents picked you up and lifted you onto their shoulders?” asks author Erin Niimi Longhurst. In her book Japonisme, Longhurst describes this emotion as slightly sad, melancholic realization about the nature of things. Far too often, we don’t stop to realize how fast-paced and hectic our day-to-day lives are. There is barely (if any) time to stop and smell the flowers, to savour, be attentive to, and recognize that there is much to enjoy and appreciate in the present moment. In our hurried lives, we forget to notice how much others have helped us, how much of a convenience it is for us to have our meals prepared for us, or how much our loved ones wished of our time and attention. Mono no aware reminds us to be mindful and attentive to the present moment. There is much research that suggests how such attention and focused awareness leads to positive psychological outcomes – not least of all more positive emotional states . A more recent study, similarly, used the ‘9 beautiful things’ intervention to further illustrate how we might benefit from the realization of beauty in our environments. In this study, researchers asked participants to list i) three beautiful things about the human body, ii) three things they experienced as beautiful in nature and iii) three things related to beauty in general. A simple exercise to be sure, but what the researchers found was that by simply doing so, participants reported a short-term boost in happiness and alleviation of depression symptoms . When was the last time you took a walk and smelt the roses?
Natsukashii: Nostalgic Happiness
Realizing the fleeting nature of our experiences may also elicit fond memories for times past. We have the ability to engage in mental ‘time travel’ – and the Japanese have a term too, for the emotions that are elicited from when we recall, with fondness, our past experiences – natsukashii (懐かしい). Loosely translated and equated with ‘nostalgic happiness’, natsukashii is an emotion experienced when we recall past, pleasant experiences. A café you’ve not visited since leaving your hometown, a food item you’ve not had since your childhood, a visit to your old school classroom – all of these can elicit nostalgic happiness. But you don’t have to wait until you can make time for visits to your old haunts. Recalling, and experiencing the positive emotions from a past positive experience can be done as part of savoring. A series of studies by Fred Bryant and colleagues showed that you can reminisce using either cognitive imagery (simply thinking up and remembering positive memories), or using memorabilia (recalling past positive memories using items or objects of personal significance). Either way, the participants’ reminiscing elicited greater levels of happiness over the course of a week, suggesting that one too, can savour the past, to reminiscence at will – and gain a psychological boon from it .
Wabi-sabi: The Beauty of Imperfection
Our families, workplaces, and societies demand high standards of performance. We strive for perfection, or at least strive to give the impression of being perfect, to increasingly demanding (and sadly, never nearly attainable) standards. And it’s not just our professional lives that demands such lofty standards – there’s the expectation too, that we do it all and still keep to society’s ideals of having both an ideal physique and a balanced lifestyle. Worryingly, however, such trends towards perfectionism are on the rise. Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill, for example, showed that perfectionism has increased over the past three decades, partly due to an increasingly competitive culture. We have increased the demands we make of ourselves (self-oriented perfectionism) and of others (other-orated perfectionism). We even believe that others make such demands of us (socially-prescribed perfectionism) . All this, of course, comes at a psychological cost. For instance, perfectionism is associated with increased vulnerability to depressive symptoms . And a possible antidote to such pressure-laden strivings? In Japanese aesthetics, the concept wabi-sabi (侘寂) is often mentioned, consisting of two words that on their own mean, “understated elegance” and “taking pleasure in the imperfect” . The term is often associated with a ‘less is more’ approach to design, and a positive view towards minimalist aesthetics. But inherent in such aesthetic philosophy is the celebration of our imperfections without being complacent; the acceptance of what is quietly, contentedly, simply, sufficient. Such an approach can be liberating, and is in opposition (and maybe even defiance!) with the ideal that more is always better. It is an antithesis to the notion that not meeting society’s standards is equated with personal failure. Wabi-sabi is a concept that ties in well with a wide range of research findings from the psychological sciences – on the value of accepting oneself – warts and all, seeing failures as learning opportunities and the building blocks of resilience, personal tenacity and notably, bing kind and compassionate towards oneself. Indeed, a study by Kristen Neff and colleagues showed that college students who were more self-compassionate were less likely to fear failure, and held greater views of their own competence than did students low on self-compassion .
Cultures have a lot to Teach Us
Not all of us will have the luxury of travel, or the opportunity to spend extended periods of time away from our professional or personal obligations, of course. Still, don’t let that discourage you from picking up books that detail insights and wisdom from cultures different from your own (Japonisme by Erin Miimi Longhurst, Ikigai by Héctor García and Fracesc Miralles, The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking to name a few) or simply, to widen your social network to include friends from different cultures and ethnicities. There is a lot that others’ culture can teach us about what a meaningful life is – and how we can possible attain it. We only need to approach these ideas with an open mind, and a willingness to learn.