Was Jesus Happy? Americans Think So

Jesus on the cross. (Image credit: Dreamstime)

Christianity is the dominant religion in both South Korea and the United States. But a new study finds that believers in these two cultures view the central figure of their religion quite differently.

Americans are more likely to associate Jesus Christ with positive terms such as "love" and "amazement" compared with South Koreans, who are more likely to associate the founder of Christianity with words like "sacrifice," "blood" and "suffering." The results held true for both Christians and non-Christians in each culture, according to study researcher Shigehiro Oishi, a psychologist at the University of Virginia.

"[I]t is clear that there is an interesting cultural difference in the image of Jesus," Oishi and his graduate student Casey Eggleston wrote in a Society for Personality and Social Psychology blog post about the research. "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."

How cultures perceive fables, fairytales and fictional characters can highlight interesting differences in cultural attitudes, Oishi and his colleagues reported in February in the Journal of Research in Personality. For example, Aesop's fable "The Ant and the Grasshopper" involves a well-prepared ant and an easy-going grasshopper that doesn't store food for winter. In the American telling of this fable, the ant usually relents and shares its bounty with the irresponsible grasshopper. In the German version, the ant lets the grasshopper starve.

Thinking about Jesus

More than 80 percent of Americans and 41 percent of South Koreans are Christian, and all draw their faith from the same biblical descriptions of Jesus. Thus, Oishi and his colleagues figured that any differences in the way Americans and South Koreans see Jesus would likely be cultural. [Saint or Slacker? Test Your Religious Knowledge]

The researchers had reason to suspect there might be differences: A former South Korean student of Oishi's had mentioned to him that her American roommate thought Jesus was happy. The South Korean student thought that idea was absurd — she assumed Jesus must have worried a lot.

So the researchers set up two experiments. In the first, they simply asked 71 European-American students and 59 South Korean students at an American university to write down the words that came to mind when they thought of Jesus. They found that Americans were much more chipper about Jesus than their South Korean counterparts. For example, about 3 percent of Americans mentioned pain or suffering on their list, compared with 15 percent of South Koreans.

In a second experiment, the researchers asked 83 South Korean students and 200 American students to fill out questionnaires that would get at major aspects of their personalities and happiness. They were then asked to fill out the same questionnaires for Jesus. Again, Americans viewed Jesus as happier, more agreeable, more extroverted, more open to experience, and more conscientious (a trait related to responsibility and carefulness) than did South Koreans. Americans also rated themselves higher than South Koreans on traits such as life satisfaction, agreeableness, extroversion and openness to experience.

Culture and Christianity

It's possible that these different views of Jesus arise from different conceptions of Christianity, Oishi wrote. South Korean culture is traditionally family-focused, with an emphasis on forgoing one's own needs for the needs of relatives. That could result in an emphasis on Jesus' sacrifices. Cultural factors determine an "ideal" personality, Eggleston told LiveScience, and that ideal could then be transferred onto Jesus, who was, after all, supposed to be the perfect model of humanity.

It's also possible that Americans simply view themselves as happier than South Koreans, so they project their own happiness onto Jesus, the researchers wrote. [Religious Mysteries: 8 Alleged Relics of Jesus]

"Perhaps none of [the] cultural representations of Jesus is complete, but at the same time not incorrect ways of understanding who he is," Oishi wrote. "In the end, examining and understanding multiple faces of Jesus could help us to understand both religion and culture just a little bit better."

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.