Why Happiness Isn’t Always Good: Asians vs. Americans

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Among journalists — and less so among psychologists — the subset of mental-health research called “positive psychology” has become powerfully influential. Positive psychology, which was more or less founded by a University of Pennsylvania professor named Martin Seligman, focuses not on ordinary or pathological behavior — the two subjects that most psychologists study — but on how we can cultivate positive emotions to build resilience and well-being.

Many research psychologists, either out of academic rigor or academic jealousy, have questioned Seligman’s work. And now a growing body of research challenges whether most humans even see “positive” emotions as better than ordinary ones — whether feeling happy actually leads, in the end, to a good life.

In a new paper in the journal Emotion, a team of psychologists at the University of Washington finds that not everyone sees positive emotions such as joviality and self-assurance as unequivocally good. Depending on your ethnic background, you may find such emotions suspicious and even dangerous.

The UW team, led by psychologist Janxin Leu, surveyed more than 600 students from three groups: European-Americans, Asian-American U.S. citizens, and Asian immigrants to the U.S. Their research built on previous studies that have found, for example, that while Americans associate feelings of happiness with personal achievement, the Japanese associate those feelings with an entire society’s harmony.

In 2002, another research team that administered questionnaires about emotions four times a day for a week reported that Japanese people feel emotion — any emotion — less often than Americans. And the Japanese respondents tended to rate their emotional events as more neutral than Americans rated theirs. Overall, Americans were more likely to see their experiences as “somewhat pleasant.”

Another team of researchers asked Japanese and American respondents to describe situations in which they felt mixed emotions. That team — a group led by Yuri Miyamoto of the University of Wisconsin-Madison — reported last year that Japanese respondents more often have mixed emotions in “predominantly pleasant situations” than Americans do.

The UW team advanced all this research in the recent Emotion paper, which was published in March. Beginning with the provocative hypothesis that Asians may tend to “find the bad in the good,” the psychologists compared 330 European Americans with 147 Asian Americans, all of them born in the U.S., and 156 Asians who had immigrated to the U.S.

The researchers asked participants to rate their levels of stress and depression, including how often they were in sad moods, felt worthless or had changes in sleep or appetite. The participants were also asked to rate the intensity of the positive emotions they felt.

The study found that having positive emotions — “happy,” “joyful,” “proud,” “strong” — tended to reduce stress and depression symptoms among European Americans but not immigrant Asians. The results for U.S.-born Asian Americans were mixed.

Why would Asians and European Americans respond to happiness so differently? One reason suggested in the paper is that Asians seem to define advancement of social harmony as more worthy than mere individual success. This theory about Asian culture is certainly not new — philosophers have compared Confucian ideals regarding interpersonal enlightenment with Western ideals regarding individual achievement at least since the 19th century.

The new paper doesn’t take a stand on how Asians and Americans differ in their views, but it does show, through its controlled experiments, that positive emotions are less important to Asian-born Asians than to Americans. Mental-health professionals should take these results into account when they decide whether to suggest to Asian patients that they cultivate self-promoting and happy emotions. For some, happiness isn’t the passage to satisfaction.


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