By Emma Young
Feeling good in an emotional sense helps to foster better physical health – at least that’s what’s been found in studies in the West. But “feeling good” doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing in all cultures. In the US, people tend to report that being excited and experiencing other so-called “high arousal positive (HAP) states” is what makes them feel good. Many people in Japan, however, place greater value on the opposite extreme, viewing calm, quiet “low arousal positive (LAP) states” as more pleasant and desirable. So, does this mean that engaging more often in stimulating activities – like a fitness work-out or a party – will make for better health in US citizens, while for people in Japan, engaging in more calming activities – like taking frequent baths – will have more of a beneficial effect? A new paper, published in Emotion, which explores this question, reveals some clear cultural variations – though not all of them are as the researchers predicted.
Magali Clobert at Stanford University and her colleagues analysed survey data collected at two time points from 640 Americans and 382 Japanese people. The sample from the US was slightly more educated and slightly older than the Japanese, but as the authors note, “both samples come from an industrialized and modern society, are well-educated, and are middle-aged.”
The researchers looked at the participants’ initial scores on a variety of surveys measuring their experience of HAP and LAP emotional states, as well as how often the participants engaged in behaviours or practices that could feasibly generate these states, such as going to a party, having a good fitness work-out or amusing people (all of which should lead to HAP feelings) and reading, taking a relaxing bath, praying, meditating or seeing beautiful scenery (which should lead to LAP feelings). They also reported on how psychologically and physically well they felt. Clobert and her colleagues then looked at biological data (including blood cholesterol levels, body mass index, and the inflammatory marker IL-6), which had been collected several months later. At this second time point, the participants also gave ratings for aspects of life satisfaction, sleep, subjective physical health, HAP and LAP behaviours, and psychological wellbeing.
The results showed that HAP feelings predicted better physical health more in the United States than they did in Japan. For example, experiencing more HAP feelings at the first time point predicted both a subsequently lower BMI and lower inflammation in the US – but not in Japan. Engaging in more HAP-related activities also predicted fewer later ill-health symptoms and conditions, fewer sleep problems and less pain in the US – but not in Japan. “Among Japanese, HAP feelings did not predict most of the health outcomes, and this was particularly evident for biological and physical health,” the researchers note.
Also consistent with the researchers’ predictions, engaging in more LAP-related behaviours was associated with subsequent better health for people in Japan more than in the US – such as fewer sleep problems and less pain. However, against expectations, experiencing more LAP feelings was actually a stronger predictor of better psychological well-being in the US than in Japan (though paradoxically more LAP feelings also marginally predicted greater inflammation in the US participants).
The researchers titled their paper: ‘Feeling excited or taking a bath: do distinct pathways underlie the positive affect-health link in the US and Japan?’ As they themselves note, their work suggests that the answer is “a partial ‘yes’” – the findings suggest that cultural attitudes to what is and is not a desirable emotional state, and related behaviours, can influence health, and deserve more attention.
Clobert and her colleagues conclude, “Positive feelings may be more beneficial to health in cultural contexts that value those states, especially for feeling HAP states. By comparing cultures that differ systematically in terms of how they understand, value, and construe emotion, we may be able to determine why positive affect is so important for health in many U.S. settings, and determine to what extent positive affect matters for physical, biological, and mental functioning in other settings.”