Was Jesus Happy?

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Whether you think Jesus was happy is more an issue of cultural semantics.
Edal Anton Lefterov

THE GIST

- Although Biblical descriptions of Jesus are essentially the same worldwide, responses to the question "Was Jesus happy?" widely differ.

- Researchers have found that the answers are predicted by the respondent's country and culture.

- The image of Jesus might be culturally constructed to fit an existing ideal, or it could be a reflection of the individual's self-image.

Americans tend to think Jesus was happy, extroverted, agreeable, kind and caring.

Koreans, on the other hand, associate Jesus more with suffering, sacrifice, and pity, according to a recent analysis in Personality and Social Psychology Connections and a paper published in the Journal of Research in Personality.

Responses to the simple question about Jesus and happiness, whose Biblical depiction is essentially the same worldwide, turn out to involve complex factors, such as shared life histories among groups of people, culture and possibly even genetics. All of these can affect how an individual defines what the optimal personality or self should look like.

"Americans meet far more strangers than others and need to be more extroverted than the Japanese, Koreans and others who tend to interact with a small number of people repeatedly, so extroversion is a highly valued asset in the U.S.," Shigehiro Oishi, lead author of the study, told Discovery News. "In the end, happiness, extroversion, and kindness are all highly valued qualities among Americans, and they might just see Jesus to have these highly desirable characteristics."

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For the study, Oishi, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia, and colleagues Kyoung Ok Seol, Minkyung Koo, and Felicity Miao asked Korean and American university students to engage in a free association task with Jesus as a target. The researchers said they chose Americans and Koreans because many people identifying as Christian exist in both populations.

Americans associated Jesus primarily with positive connotations ("awesome" was a common response) and rarely with negative connotations, such as "pain," which was more frequently mentioned by the Korean study participants.

In a second part of the study, the researchers asked the test subjects to rate Jesus and themselves using personality and well-being scales. Americans again tended to emphasize happiness over sorrow.

Oishi said that "Buddhism and other religions had been firmly in place in Korea before the introduction of Christianity, and life is suffering in Buddhism."

"Buddhism came out of a really tough societal condition," he continued. "Most people were suffering. The main goal of Buddhism was to reduce pain and suffering. Because Christianity was introduced long after Buddhism in Korea, probably the part of Christianity that fits well with Buddhism was emphasized in Korea."

Other cultural differences may further explain the American and Korean responses. Oishi said such differences pose "an egg and chicken problem" involving genetics and shared life experiences, since one can affect the other. It is also unclear if the image of Jesus might be culturally constructed to fit an existing ideal, or if it could reflect an individual's self-image.

Casey Eggleston, a researcher at the University of Virginia, told Discovery News that language differences also come into play, with the meaning of happiness differing across cultures over time.

"The historical definition included concepts of luck and good fortune, but that meaning has fallen out of use in the U.S., where many believe they can pursue and obtain happiness by their own effort, while it remains a major part of the concept in most other cultures," she explained.

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"Similarly, the emotional connotation of the word happy varies substantially. While the American concept typically includes upbeat positive emotions like excitement, the concept in East Asia tends to focus more on calm positive emotions like peace and contentment."

The researchers chose to focus on two particular countries, but they expect respondents in other nations with a large Christian base would also provide different, culture-predicted responses to the question, "Was Jesus happy?"

As for their own answers, Eggleston said, "There are two primary approaches to happiness: hedonia and eudaimonia. Hedonia is a state of pleasure and physical enjoyment. In the sense of feeling good, I don't think Jesus was happy most of the time, although he undoubtedly had pleasant moments during his ministry."

"Eudaimonia, on the other hand, is happiness achieved through virtuous living—pursuing a meaningful, viable life and doing so with integrity," she added. "If we use this Aristotelian understanding of happiness, I think Jesus must have been exceedingly happy."

As for Oishi's answer to whether or not Jesus was happy, he said, "I don't know for sure, but I don't think so. He had a tough life."

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