Are Positive Emotions the Same in All Cultures?

Emotions, whether positive or negative, have different connotations for different cultures in the East and the West. This study attempted to investigate the effects of emotions on the depression levels of European, immigrant Asian and Asian American college-goers. The results showed that negative symptoms triggered depression in all the three student groups. On the other hand, positive emotions triggered depression or negative emotions in Asians. The authors suggest that the findings of this study will help in understanding the “role of culture in positive emotions and positive psychology.”

Emotions like happiness, sadness, anger and jealousy are often classified as positive or negative. It is believed that positive feelings and emotions often lead to better mental health and easier recovery from depression and stress. However, it is seen that while positive emotions, like happiness, are viewed positively in European and Western cultures, it is not viewed similarly in the East. For example, the Japanese believe that happiness in a person may be detrimental, as it leads to problems in social relationships such as jealousy of their success. Most of the studies conducted to date to evaluate the positive effects of positive emotions, have focused on the Western population alone. They have not yet studied a blend of Eastern and Western populations. This study thus attempted to analyze the cultural differences in the perceptions of positive and negative emotions and their psychological effects.

* The study included 156 immigrant Asians, 330 European Americans and 147 Asian Americans who were college-goers.
* The participants were subjected to an hour-long survey conducted on a computer to evaluate their emotions, stress, symptoms of depression and other factors like financial status, age and gender.
* The emotions were measured by using specially designed scales. Emotions were assessed by instructing the participants to rate the intensity of their positive and negative emotions on a five-point scale where 1 = “not at all”, 3 =“moderately” and 5 = “extremely.”
* Specific positive emotions like serenity (at ease, relaxed, calm), joviality (happy, delighted and excited), self-assurance (proud, confident, bold, and fearless) and attentiveness (alert, determined, attentive) were also examined.

Key findings
* It was found that there are underlying cultural differences in the perception of positive and negative emotions.
* An increase in positive emotions is directly related to a reduction in the symptoms of depression among European Americans. This was not true for immigrant Asians.
* The results also showed that those Asians who had been “acculturated” or were accustomed to American living, especially from an early age, had a significant decrease in the symptoms of depression in response to positive emotions. The reduction in the symptoms of depression for Asian Americans was less than European Americans, but more than Asian immigrants.
* As predicted, the increase in negative emotions led to an increase in depression in all the participants.

Next steps/Shortcomings
The authors admit that this study evaluated participants and the effects of positive and negative emotions at just one point of time. This could have affected the results. Further studies that analyze the participants over a longer period may help in assessing the long-term benefits, if any, of positive emotions, and the harms of negative emotions on mental health.

This study aimed at examining the various cultures from the East and the West and the effects of positive and negative emotions on mental health. The results showed that immigrant Asians derive little benefit in their mental well–being from positive emotions when compared to European Americans and acculturated Asian Americans. This study paves the way for future studies in psychology that focus on cultural differences and the varying influences of positive emotions on different populations, especially Asians who form nearly 60 percent of the world population. This study shows that the positive effects of positive emotions cannot be generalized, at least for the Asian population. In addition, further long-term follow-up studies are necessary to recommend the beneficial effects of positivity on mental health.

For More Information:
Are Positive Emotions Just as “Positive” Across Cultures?
Piblication Journal: Emotion, March 2011
By Janxin Leu; Jennifer Wang; Department of Psychology, University of Washington, Seattle

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.

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