I am an Eeyore; I know this. I’m a glass-half-empty, worst-case-scenario, dwell-on-the-imperfections, existential-dread ruminating worrywart, and I envy the people I encounter who seem to effortlessly exude perkiness and fun. That’s not to say there’s no joy in my life; it just doesn’t come as naturally to me as it appears to for others. And yet despite fully meeting the textbook definition of “the opposite of an optimist,” I’ve never thought to label myself a pessimist.
In large part, that’s because of the baggage associated with the term. In America, the tyranny of positivity reigns supreme, so much so that I often find myself worrying about how much I worry. I worry about my gloomy outlook because of how strongly our culture emphasizes the value of a positive one.
And I worry about the ways that all my worrying could potentially affect my health and the health of those around me. Just a few months ago, the New York Times declared that “studies have shown an indisputable link between having a positive outlook and health benefits like lower blood pressure, less heart disease, better weight control and healthier blood sugar levels.” Plenty of news articles present similar ideas in a stark black-and-white fashion: optimists live longer; pessimism kills.
But some research suggests that things aren’t so simple. In 2016, for example, a study of more than 700,000 British women failed to find a link between happiness and longevity. Which raises the question: What makes this particular group of study participants any different? Could it be that culture plays a role — that British people, overall, are just more tolerant and accepting of gloominess?
Now, new research seems to show that cultural perceptions of mental states may indeed mediate their physical effect. In a study published last month in the journal Psychological Science, a team of psychologists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison reported that positivity was related to improved health markers in Americans, but not in Japanese people.
The study authors analyzed health data from 1,017 American and 374 Japanese people, taken from the Midlife in the United States and Midlife in Japan studies, both funded by the National Institute on Aging. Participants reported how frequently they had felt ten different positive emotions in the previous 30 days, and blood samples were taken to measure lipid levels, an indicator of heart health.
Even after accounting for things like a person’s age, gender, socioeconomic status, and chronic health conditions, there was a significant difference between the two groups: “American adults who experience high levels of positive emotions, such as feeling ‘cheerful’ and ‘extremely happy,’ are more likely to have healthy blood-lipid profiles,” explains lead study author Jiah Yoo, but the same was not true among Japanese adults. The discrepancy, she adds, “suggests that health implications of positive emotions may not be completely driven by the inherent nature of positive emotions, but also shaped by American cultural context.”
“In American cultures, experiencing positive emotions is seen as desirable and is even encouraged via socialization,” Yoo explains. “But in East Asian cultures, people commonly view positive emotions as having dark sides —they are fleeting, may attract unnecessary attention from others, and can be a distraction from focusing on important tasks.”
Past research has reached similar conclusions. In a 2015 Stanford study of 690 Chinese and American participants, for example, the Americans generally sought to maximize positive feelings and minimize negative ones, while the Chinese subjects were more likely to report that they commonly felt mixed emotions. The study authors argued that the results had to do with differing ideas about the importance of the individual: The individualistic American culture places more emphasis on people doing what’s best for themselves, while more collectivist East Asian cultures prioritize doing what’s best for the group.
Yoo believes the cultural influence on the positivity-health connection may be the result of culturally specific health behaviors. “Frequent experience of positive affect in the Western context would be aligned with prescribed values and beliefs, and thus likely motivate engagement in and pursuit of healthy behaviors,” she explains. “In contrast, positive affect aligns less with norms and beliefs about positive affect in the East Asian context, and thus may not be associated with healthy behaviors.”
In other words, it may be possible that positive thinking only improves our health because we’re conditioned to believe that it’s the optimal state — that emotions and outlooks aren’t actually as objectively good or bad as we’ve made them out to be. After all, experiencing a full range of emotions is perfectly healthy, and a least one study has shown that there’s a benefit to embracing your negative emotions. Yoo says it’s possible that Americans’ mental and physical health could improve if we start viewing negativity as more acceptable.
But there are some caveats of the study. One is that this study design can only show correlation, not causation. Yoo says it also doesn’t address the fact that “sometimes positive emotions may not be healthy, even in the U.S.” Indeed, some research points to the damaging health effects of our relentless pursuit of positivity and happiness.
There’s also the issue that what it means to be happy can vary by culture as well. For example, “American conception of happiness emphasized on being upbeat, whereas the Chinese conception of happiness focused on being solemn and reserved. This means that, in America, high-arousal positive emotional states are considered as happiness, a desirable state,” psychotherapist Nangyeon Lim, a professor at South Korea’s Kyungil University, explained in a 2016 article. “By contrast, low-arousal positive emotional states are considered as happiness in China.” High-arousal emotions are things like fear, anger, nervousness, irritation, astonishment, enthusiasm, delight, joy, or excitement; low-arousal emotions include feeling content, bored, relaxed, serene, sad, calm, sluggish, sleepy, satisfied, gloomy, pleased, or peaceful.
It’s not simply that Americans are more intent on seeking happiness, then —there’s also a high bar for how intense that happiness is supposed to feel. “Westerners value high-arousal emotions more than Easterners, so they promote activities that elicit high-arousal emotions.,” Lim noted. “Even children of the West learn through storybooks that high-arousal emotions are ideal, and the opposite is true for children of the East.”
It’s comforting for me to hear that at least one culture may accept and embrace my gloominess — that the disdain for people with my temperament isn’t universal. I may never be able to fully internalize the concept that it’s okay to be sad, but I do know that I need to be gentler with myself, and to worry less when I don’t meet my own, or society’s, emotional expectations. Maybe I don’t need to shoot for delight. Maybe contentment can feel just as good.