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Professor Eunkook Suh Department of Psychology, Yonsei University

What does the word happiness prompt in your mind?

What three words come to mind when you think about happiness? 


Your answer could have important implications for your level of happiness. Although everyone desires to be happy, there are different opinions about what defines happiness. Some people focus on personal achievements, while others find happiness in social relationships. Ideas about happiness differ from person to person, and even across cultures. How happy you are partly depends on your beliefs and assumptions about happiness. As part of large international research project, a group of researchers led by Prof. Eunkook M. Suh from Yonsei University, Seoul, Korea studied words associated with happiness to gain insights about people’s views in this area.



How you think about happiness can affect life satisfaction.How you think about happiness can affect life satisfaction.


These researchers took a novel approach to studying happiness, using free association, a classic psychological approach dating back to Freud. They asked more than 500 American and Korean college students to write down three words that come to mind when they think of happiness. Then, they classified the resulting 1563 words as either social or non-social. Social words included abstract concepts (e.g., love), particular people (e.g., friend), or relationships (e.g., dating).


The results revealed several interesting patterns. At a cultural level, Koreans associated more social words with happiness; “family” was the most common. “Smile” was the favorite word for Americans, who tended to associate emotional states or expressions with happiness. According to Prof. Suh, “Even the types of relationships differed according to culture, for example: Koreans described family relationships more often, while the words given by Americans were more likely to represent friendships”. On an individual level, in both cultures, people who mentioned more social words were more satisfied with their lives, reporting less loneliness and more social connectedness. Providing emotional support also plays a part in the relationship between social views about happiness and higher life satisfaction. People who view happiness from a social viewpoint may behave in ways to enrich social ties, such as providing social support to others, which in turn, may lead to greater happiness.


Although more research is needed to clarify why associating social words with happiness is related to a person’s level of life satisfaction, the essence of the results is captured in a statement by Prof. Suh, “We find it quite remarkable that one’s level of happiness is captured by three (social) words a person chooses to associate with happiness.” Thus, regardless of culture, a simple count of social words associated with happiness appears to offer a reasonably good clue for how happy a person actually is.


Updated in Dec 2018

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More Information

  • Title of original article : What Does “Happiness” Prompt in Your Mind? Culture, Word Choice, and Experienced Happiness
  • Journal : Journal of Happiness Studies
  • DOI : 10.1007/s10902-016-9836-8
  • Contact corresponding author : Eunkook M. Suh, esuh@yonsei.ac.kr