By Emma Young
What’s your view on feelings of sadness, nervousness or hopelessness? Are they harmful emotions that we should strive to avoid feeling — an opinion that is widely held in the West? Or is natural, even helpful, to feel them from time to time — a perspective commonly found in Japan?
Previous studies have found that cultural attitudes to our emotions affect our health. In Japan, for example, greater reported happiness isn’t associated with better health, in contrast to findings from the US. Also, regular experience of high-energy, high-arousal states is associated with better health in the US, but not Japan, where calm, quiet states are highly valued.
Now a study published in the journal Emotion reveals that our attitudes to negative emotions, such as sadness and hopelessness, matter, too. Previous studies have linked experience of these emotions to increased inflammation and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and even death among Americans, but not Japanese people. So Jiyoung Park at the University of Texas at Dallas and her colleagues set out to explore whether differences in stress might explain this. If, in contrast to Japanese people, Americans view the experience of negative emotions as a failure of self-control, and feel stress as a result, this could explain the links between these kinds of emotions and poorer health.
The team analysed detailed data collected on 761 Americans of European descent and 328 Japanese adults, with a mean age of about 60. As part of much bigger studies, these participants had all completed surveys to assess negative emotions (how often, and how severely, they felt them) and personality. They had also given a series of saliva samples, which had been analysed for levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and blood samples, which had been checked for certain markers of inflammation as well as cholesterol levels (which can indicate risk for cardiovascular disease). Their blood pressure had also been checked.
Healthy people show a big spike in cortisol shortly after waking, then a gradual decline in levels of this hormone during the day. Regular stress alters this pattern, blunting that early spike and making the decline less steep — a profile known to be associated with poorer health. When the team analysed the data, they found that experience of negative emotions was indeed associated with a flattening of the daily cortisol slope among the Americans, but not among the Japanese participants. (The team took all kinds of other factors into account when performing the analysis, including personality traits known to influence the reporting of negative emotions, gender, age, sleep patterns and more.) This was the case even though the Japanese participants in fact reported more negative emotions than the Americans.
Park and her colleagues also found that for the Americans, but not the Japanese participants, experience of negative emotions was associated with both more inflammation and higher cardiovascular risk indicators. Their analysis led them to conclude that this was due to the flattening of the cortisol slope among only the Americans. “These findings suggest that cultural differences in how emotions are construed may make the experience of negative affect more or less stressful and differentially consequential for health,” the team writes.
The Japanese participants appeared to be “buffered against some of the harmful health consequences of negative affect because of their view of negative affect as a fluctuating, momentary part of a natural cycle of both the self and external events, and thus not threatening or stressful.”
As the researchers themselves note, there are, however, a few reasons to be cautious about drawing very strong conclusions from this data. The links that they report are all correlational, and longitudinal studies will be needed to look at variations in negative emotion, cortisol profile and health over time. Also, it’s possible that something other than differences in attitudes to negative emotion — differences in emotion regulation abilities, perhaps — are behind the different findings for Americans versus Japanese people.
However, the research does add to a growing body of evidence that our attitudes to our emotions are key to understanding how they affect our long-term health. It could be tricky to change the view, widespread in the West, of negative emotions as being undesirable, even dangerous. But this work, in the context of other recent supporting studies, certainly suggests that it is worth trying to do this.