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Health benefits of happiness depend on cultural environment

Research has found that feelings of happiness and positivity can have a beneficial impact on physical health. A new study, however, suggests that the health benefits linked to positive emotions may be limited to people of certain cultural backgrounds.

Psychological scientist Jiah Yoo and his colleagues theorized that the relationship between positive emotions and improved health is specific to Western populations.

For their study, the researchers developed a cross-cultural comparison. The team used data from two representative studies of adults funded by the National Institute on Aging, Midlife in the United States and Midlife in Japan.

For the studies, the participants had rated how frequently they experienced 10 different positive emotions during the previous 30 days. The studies also produced measurements of the volunteers’ blood lipids, which provided objective data on heart health.

“Because of the global prevalence of coronary artery disease, blood lipids are considered important indices of biological health in many Western and East Asian countries,” explained Yoo.

The data revealed that frequent positive emotions were directly related to healthy lipid profiles in the American study. The data from the Japanese study, on the other hand, did not provide evidence of such a connection.

“Our key finding is that positive emotions predict blood-lipid profiles differently across cultures,” said Yoo. “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, even after accounting for other factors such as age, gender, socioeconomic status, and chronic conditions. However, this was not true for Japanese adults.”

The team examined how people from different cultural backgrounds conceive of happiness and how much value is placed on experiencing positive emotions.

“In American cultures, experiencing positive emotions is seen as desirable and is even encouraged via socialization. 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,” said Yoo.

Yoo said that the findings of the study “underscore the importance of cultural context for understanding links between emotion and health, something that has been largely ignored in the literature.”

“By demonstrating that the cultural variation in the connection between emotional well-being and physical well-being, our research has wide-ranging relevance among those who seek to promote well-being in the communities and the workplace, including clinicians, executives, and policy makers,” said Yoo.

The research is published in the journal Psychological Science.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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