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Was He Happy?

March 31, 2012

(with Casey Eggleston)

Was Jesus Happy? As Easter approaches and many Christians celebrate the rebirth of Jesus, I wondered. I am not Christian, and don’t know much about the Bible. But from the little I know, he seems like he had a tough life. (Since I don’t know much about the Bible, I asked Casey Eggleston, one of my graduate students, who knows the Bible to fill in the details below). Despite having some devoted followers, Jesus was rejected by his local community early in his ministry, harassed by the religious leaders of the day, outraged by the corruption around him, betrayed by one of his closest companions, subjected to public humiliation, forsaken by many of his friends, and ultimately crucified at the hands of those he was trying to save.  Historically speaking, happiness means “good luck and fortune.” According to the events described in the Bible, Jesus did not seem to have much “luck” or “fortune.” So, I would say, “No, he wasn’t that happy”.  (On the other hand, he was probably not unhappy since he had a strong mission and belief in the importance of his ministry.)

Given that the Bible’s descriptions of Jesus are essentially the same everywhere in the world, and Jesus is Jesus in the U.S., Italy, Argentina, or Korea, you might expect the same, or at least similar answer to this question “Was Jesus happy?” everywhere. Thus, I was surprised to hear that some Americans think that Jesus was happy. I clearly remember a conversation with Kyoung Ok Seol, a former student of mine at the University of Minnesota. She said “My roommate thinks that Jesus was happy.” “Really?” I said. “Is she American?” Kyoung Ok replied “Yes, she is.” “What do you think?” Kyoung Ok said “No, I don’t think he was happy; he was worried a lot.” So started a new research project.

In the first study, we asked American students at the University of Virginia and Korean students at Seoul National University what came to their mind when they thought about Jesus. Among Americans, the most frequent free association was the words associated with excellence such as “nice,” “good,” “excellent,” and “amazing,” followed by the words associated with benevolence such as “kind” and  “caring,” and the words associated with love. Less than 3% of Americans mentioned pain or suffering, and about 10% of among Americans mentioned “crucified.” In contrast, roughly 15% of Koreans mentioned “pain” or “suffering,” and 30% of them mentioned “crucified” and another 20% mentioned “sin.” Statistically speaking, Koreans were significantly more likely to free associate Jesus with “suffer/pain,” “sacrifice,” “crucified,” “sin,” and “pity/sorry” than were Americans.

In the second study, we asked American and Korean college students to rate their own personality and subjective well-being, as well as Jesus’ personality and subjective well-being using well-established scales. Americans perceived Jesus to be happier, more extraverted, agreeable, conscientious, and open to experience than Koreans. Americans and Koreans did not differ in terms of the perceived life satisfaction, unhappiness, and neuroticism of Jesus. American college students also rated themselves to be happier, more extraverted, agreeable, conscientious, and more open than did Koreans.  We found that Korea-US differences in self-reports of happiness, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experiences were explained (mediated) by the perception of Jesus’ happiness, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness.

One interpretation is that norms are established that tell us what the optimal personality or self should look like, which is then reflected in representations of influential and popular figures like Jesus and finally privately adopted into our self-concepts and reflected by self-reports. In other words, just as Korean style capitalism (dominated by big conglomerates) is different from American style capitalism (more entrepreneurship), Korean Christianity might be slightly different from American Christianity. As Korean capitalism has developed to fit the pre-existing Korean culture of hierarchical familialism, the aspects of Jesus’ images that fit well with Korean cultural beliefs might have been emphasized in Korea. As a result, Jesus is not generally perceived to be happy, but rather recognized as someone who has suffered and sacrificed a lot for others. Of course, there is the reverse possibility (self-projection, Epley et al., 2009): to the extent that Americans generally view themselves happier than Koreans do, Americans might have simply projected their happiness to Jesus. We checked this possibility, and our data also provided support to this self-projection hypothesis.

So, was he happy? I don’t know. But, it is clear that there is an interesting cultural difference in the image of Jesus. The image of Jesus might be culturally constructed (to fit the existing ideal in a given culture), or it could be the reflection of individuals’ self-image. This is a chicken-and-egg problem. It is hard to know. Maybe the goal shouldn’t be to decide once and for all whether Jesus was happy or to discourage people from seeing the world through a cultural lens, but rather to realize that Jesus, like all people, was multifaceted and complex.  Perhaps none of cultural representations of Jesus is complete but at the same time not incorrect ways of understanding who he is. In the end, examining and understanding multiple faces of Jesus could help us to understand both religion and culture just a little bit better.  Happy Easter!


Epley, N., Converse, B. A., Delbosc, A., Monteleone, G. A., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2009). Believers’ estimates of God’s beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people’s beliefs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,  106,

Oishi, S., Seol, K., Koo, M., & Miao, F. M. (2011). Was he happy? Cultural differences in the conceptions of Jesus. Journal of Research in Personality, 45, 84-91.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 16, 2012 12:40 pm

    Professor Oishi,
    I truly enjoyed the thought provoking nature of your post. I can certainly see how culture, environment and history would have a significant impact on the nature of perception. That being said, it must also be recognized that there are (put very simplistically) two theological schools of thought that might also have an impact on the perception of Jesus’ happiness.

    The first is that of Jesus suffering and dying for our sins as a sacrificial atonement for our sinful nature. This suffering, blood sacrifice, understanding is prevalent in Roman Catholicism and Evangelical churches. (The movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” is emblamatic of this theological understanding.) The resulting attitudes are often those of debt and obligation on the part of Christians, piety, and the “Protestant work ethic.” It was this understanding that predominantly was exported to Korea, where it (Christianity) is relatively new. I can only speculate that, if asked, they would put words like “sacrifice, sin, srucified, suffer, and pain,” high up on their list of descriptors. It may also be, admittedly, that this theology was that which most resonated, culturally, in Korea.

    The second, more progressive, form has little, if any, emphasis on the atoning blood sacrifice of Jesus, and more emphasis on the “beloving” nature thaught and exemplified by Jesus. “Progressive” mainline Christians and “sprirtual-but-not-religious-once-churched,” and others are certainly far less likely to use terms related to suffering and sacrifice.

    So your results may be skewed depending on whom you asked in the US. Even so, it is a terrific question. Thank you.

  2. April 1, 2012 9:00 pm

    That is a great point! Buddhism has a much longer history in Asia than other religions. So, the newer one might have been adopted while being filtered through the lenses of Buddhism and related belief systems.

  3. April 1, 2012 5:31 pm

    Prof. Oishi,
    Great post!
    This reminds me of the theme of suffering in Buddhism and one of the four noble truth: life is pervaded by dukkha (suffering, disease). But somehow, we can bring about the cessation of dukkha by practicing virtues. Enlightenment and happiness have its root in suffering and solitarity. And there’s a transforming process. I guess this notion might have embedded in Asian culture at large , thus subtly influence our perception as well.

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