Key to Happiness: Views from East and West

What's best for you? Is it Ukeireru - the Japanese mindset of acceptance - or, as argued in the west, to be comfortable with being average.

“How can I be happy?” It's the perennial, soul searching question almost all of us seek the answer to. Clinical psychologist Scott Haas discovered a refreshingly simple and effective way to attain happiness through his intimate experience with Japanese culture over years. And you don’t have to be Japanese to practice it. He introduces the idea in his recently published book: Why Be Happy?

Ukeireru means much more than self-acceptance. It means acceptance of our relationships in our families, in school, at work and in our communities. It means accepting others,” he says.  

Once you accept what surrounds you as it is, you have room to calmly observe and notice that you are only a part of the society and not that important. As a result, you can more easily understand other points of view and you won’t simply react to a person or an event that you are upset about. And you won’t be so stressed out all the time. 

It sounds great. But Japan has a fundamentally different social structure where groups are central to existence. How do you apply the practice of acceptance in a more individualistic Western society? The book does not suggest that you become a group-oriented person. Instead, it makes you aware of the universal truth that you are only a part of many groups that you rely on. And at the end of the day, you are not alone.  

Meanwhile, in the west, others argue that we would be happier and healthier if we embraced being average.

A study by the American Psychological Association of 40,000 university students in the UK, US and Canada between 1989 and 2017 found that perfectionistic traits are more prevalent in young people today than 30 years ago. According to the research, the perception among young people that they need to appear perfect to secure approval has increased by a third. Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill, the researchers leading the study, attributed the rise to a society that puts young people in competition with each other.

In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown describes herself as “a recovering perfectionist and an aspiring good-enoughist”. She adds: “Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfect. It's an unattainable goal.” Her bestseller is to be re-released this year as a 10th anniversary edition, but a decade on perfectionism is just as much a scourge on mental and physical health as it was then, as the APA study demonstrates.

A forthcoming book by Eleanor Ross is titled Good Enough: The Myth of Success and How to Celebrate the Joy in Average. The work, which is due for release in 2021, explores how it's better to be average and happy than successful and miserable.

Aiming for unrealistically high standards and then feeling worthless if you fail to reach them, or feeling unsatisfied if you do, are among the key characteristics of perfectionism, says Dr Fuschia Sirois, a researcher in psychology at Sheffield University. It’s not so much the standards themselves that are the problem, she says, but our response to failing to achieve them.

Part of it is about learning to be kinder to yourself. “We know that perfectionists are low in self-compassion, so learning self-compassionate responses is of benefit,” explains Sirois. “Instead of saying: ‘I should have done this’, say to yourself: ‘It’s human nature to make mistakes or not always reach my goals, and I’m unhappy about it but that’s OK.’ You’re being self-kind rather than self-critical: you’re seeing your failings as part of the human condition.”

If you plan to buy one or more of these books, OGN suggests ordering it through your local independent bookstore. They need your support much more than Amazon does.