Character  &  Context

Different markers of status predict well-being in Japan and the U.S.

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By Cynthia Levine

What is good for Asahi bank is good for me. I can’t separate myself from Asahi Bank [his employer]: If Asahi bank has high status compared to other banks, I’ll have high status too.  I am what I am because of Asahi bank” (Matthews, 1996) – Japanese man, discussing his employer

“There is a part of me that does care what other people think, but there is a larger part of me that is comfortable with my own awareness of what I believe and what I feel and who I am.  I don’t need other peoples’ approval as to how I live” (Markus, Curhan, & Ryff, 2011) – American participant, discussing what has made his life good

As both the Japanese and American individuals quoted above recognize, status and success matter in one’s life.  But their different outlooks also highlight how status and success can be defined in different ways.  The Japanese man feels that he has achieved high status because of his job, an objective achievement. In contrast, the American respondent feels that he has been successful because he views his own life that way.

Psychological researchers’ have used a similar distinction to categorize markers of status. Some markers of status, such as education, occupation, or income, are objective.  It is generally possible for others to observe them, and they are more likely to reflect social consensus about the definition of success. In contrast, other measures, such as people’s ratings of where they fall in a social hierarchy, are subjective.  They reflect individuals’ own personal views of what level of status they have achieved. Past research shows that both objective and subjective social status predict well-being, and studies conducted primarily in the West suggest that subjective social status is a stronger predictor of psychological well-being than objective status.

My co-authors and I wondered whether there might be cultural differences in the extent to which objective and subjective factors predicted well-being. The U.S. is a culture that emphasizes independence. People are understood as fundamentally separate from others, and individuals’ own perceptions and subjective reactions are the primary determinants of thoughts, feelings, and actions. It thus makes sense that, in a U.S. cultural context, subjective social status, which reflects an individual’s own view of his or her place in the hierarchy, would be an especially powerful predictor of well-being.

In contrast, Japan is a cultural context where interdependence with others is well-elaborated and emphasized. Greater attention is paid to how one is viewed by others, and well-being centers around well-managed relationships with others. We thus reasoned that in interdependent cultural contexts such as Japan, objective social status might be a stronger predictor of well-being than it is in independent cultural contexts, such as the U.S.

We tested our hypotheses using data from the second wave of the Midlife in the U.S. study (, a sample of nearly 1,805 English-speaking adults randomly selected from working telephone banks in the 48 contiguous state, and from the Midlife in Japan study (, a sample of 1,027 adults randomly selected from the Tokyo metropolitan area.

We found that level of educational attainment, an objective marker of status, predicted indices of well-being such as life satisfaction, positive relations with others, and self-acceptance more strongly in Japan than in the U.S. In contrast, participants’ subjective view of where they see themselves in the hierarchy of their community (i.e., the community ladder) predicted indices of well-being such as life satisfaction, positive affect, purpose in life, and self-acceptances more strongly in the U.S. than in Japan.

These findings suggest that Eleanor Roosevelt’s sentiment that, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” may be more true in the U.S. than in East Asian cultural contexts.  As a growing literature suggests, the psychosocial factors that contribute to health and well-being are shaped by the cultural context, and thus can vary across cultures.

Cynthia Levine is a post-doctoral scholar with Edith Chen at Northwestern University. She received her Ph.D. in from Stanford University and her bachelor’s degree from Princeton University. Cynthia’s research focuses on the relationship among cultural beliefs, inequality, and health and well-being.

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