Jocelyn Davis is the founding principal of Nelson Hart LLC, a consulting firm devoted to helping organizations build positive workplaces. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland Clark School of Engineering where she teaches graduate project management students how to use positive psychology.
At the recent First World Congress of the International Positive Psychology Association, Professor Yong-Lin Moon of Seoul National University reviewed a concept that he calls frames of meaning for life. The existence of different frames of meaning help us explain cultural differences. Different frames of meaning can particularly explain differences in our relationships with others, differences in our positive institutions, and differences in the ways people deploy character strengths and virtues.
Dr. Moon hypothesizes that even if two people have similar positive emotions and traits at the same time, it is possible for their levels of perceived happiness to differ depending upon the contextual meaning of their experiences within the positive institutions of their cultures. He suggests that their frames of meaning for life may have both a neuro-biological and cognitive origin.
Frames of Meaning in RelationshipsIn his first example, he contrasted the response of two families, one Korean and one American, to the bankruptcy of a young boy’s uncle. Within the Korean culture, the young boy’s family would assume central responsibility for his uncle’s family, including responsibility for the payment of the debts left by the bankruptcy. The resulting disruption of the young boy’s life, both individually and as a member of the family, would be substantial. In addition to the physical, emotional, and social disruption, his uncle’s bankruptcy would reflect poorly on the young boy’s family, particularly if they did not properly handle the family’s responsibilities. In contrast, there is not a cultural norm embedded in positive institutions in the US which would require the young boy’s family to take direct and complete care of his uncle’s family nor to assume full responsibility for the unpaid debts of his uncle. Social stigma arising from the uncle’s bankruptcy would be substantially less in the US than in Korea.
Frames of Meaning in Positive Institutions
In Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman defines positive institutions in terms of ideology, democracy, family systems, free press, free inquiry, and so on. Dr. Moon pointed out that positive institutions exist beyond individuals, while positive emotions and traits reside within the individuals themselves. Positive emotions, therefore, have greater uniformity across cultures. Differences in positive institutions across cultures may be more discriminating in explaining differences in happiness.
Dr. Moon suggested that the notion of happiness is both culture-free and culture-bound. As we study positive institutions, we need to seek out both the universal elements of positive institutions and the idiosyncratic elements of positive institutions within different cultures.Dr. Moon reviewed briefly the frames of meaning for life within the Korean context. Koreans live in a mixed culture of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Even though the reported number of people practicing Confucianism is quite small at 0.2%, the historical influence of Confucianism dramatically impacts how positive emotions are experienced in Korea. The Confucian tradition of Threes describes the relationships between subjects and kings, between sons and fathers, and between wives and husbands. The tradition of Fives refers to five distinct virtues: loyalty between kings and subjects, filial piety between sons and fathers, affinity between friends, rank order according to age difference, and status distinctions between men and women.
Confucian traditions focus on relationships, in contrast to the 10 Commandments of Judeo-Christian culture which focus on individual behaviors.
Frames of Meaning in Virtues
As a result of its Confucian heritage, loyalty and filial piety are the most valued virtues within the Korean culture. Judgments about virtue may be quite different from those made in a Western culture. For example, in 19th century Korea, a general commanding a defensive force against an invading army left the field of combat upon notification of his mother’s death. As a result, the battle was lost. He has been honored as a paragon of virtue because his filial piety is more valued than winning the military engagement. In Korean culture, human relationships are more important than the content of the virtues themselves.
In another example, a former president of Korea was accused of using his power inappropriately and of amassing great personal wealth. In public hearings, many of his former subordinates told the truth. One person however refused to make any damaging comments about the behavior of his former boss, even though his comments thus diverged from the truth. The one person who refused to make damaging comments, who placed relationship over the virtue of honesty, would be considered happy within the Korean frame of meaning for life.
Dr. Moon explained why nations with Confucian backgrounds have difficulty making apologies for the past. To the Japanese, apologizing for atrocities committed during World War II would mean public recognition of failings by their ancestors. Under Confucian frames of meaning for life, acknowledging the mistakes of ancestors is a greater failing than ignoring demands for honesty and justice. It is not that they deny the atrocities committed during World War II. It’s that apologizing is of lesser moral value than maintaining loyalty to the honor of deceased ancestors.
Differences in Frames of Meaning
Awareness of differences in the relative importance of different virtues can help one culture better understand the positive institutions of another. It is important for any culture not to conclude that their own value systems are shared by all.
Confucius courtesy of kanegan