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Asians and positive emotions

Helen Adamopoulos/MEDILL

Hong Liu, executive director of the Midwest Asian Health Association in Chicago, said Chinese culture teaches that suffering is part of life and necessary for spiritual strength.

The Buddha factor: Positive thinking not so powerful

by Helen Adamopoulos
April 28, 2011

Previous research has shown thinking positively helps many Americans fight off depression and stress, but a new study has found that the power of looking on the bright side doesn’t cross cultural boundaries. Because Asians view happiness through a different lens, pleasant thoughts don’t make them less stressed and depressed, according to researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle.

"In different cultural contexts, the goal of happiness might not be shared," said Janxin Leu, the study's lead author. "I wanted to call attention to the fact that we need to be careful about generalizing our results."

The researchers surveyed about 600 students at a U.S. university concerning perceived stress levels and depression symptoms. The students included European Americans, Asian immigrants and Asian Americans born in the U.S. to immigrant parents.

The American Psychological Association journal Emotion will publish the researchers’ findings in a future print edition. The study is already available online.

The study participants reported how often they experienced signs of depression such as feeling worthless and experiencing disturbances in appetite. They also rated the average intensity of positive feelings associated with qualities such as serenity and self-assurance using a five-point scale, according to the study.

The European Americans showed a negative correlation between the intensity of their positive emotions and frequency of depression symptoms. Asian Americans showed the same correlation to a lesser degree. For immigrant Asians, the study reported there was no connection between intense positive feelings and reduced depression and stress symptoms.

Leu said Asian culture involves a different perspective on happiness than American culture because of a combination of influences. One factor is Buddhism, which teaches that the pursuit of happiness leads to suffering and it is impossible to achieve a state of pure joy, she said. Taoism, another significant influence, includes the”The reason I did the study was because the majority of the world doesn’t come from this background," said Janxin Leu, the study's lead author. “In different cultural contexts, the goal of happiness might not be shared.” concept of yin and yang: Everything good is balanced out by something bad.

“In the cycle of life, good things follow bad things, which follow good things,” she said.

Therefore, people who grow up in an Asian culture commonly experience emotions such as fear along with happiness, said Leu, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington. They might feel that their present good feelings mean something bad will soon happen to create balance.

Psychologist Eunice Kim, who teaches at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago, said Asians also generally see themselves as an integral part of a larger whole. As a result, they take on the perspective of other people when they have positive emotions: How do the people around me feel about my happiness? They might experience sadness if they think their pleasant mindset has a negative impact by inciting jealousy in others, Kim said.

Hong Liu, who immigrated to the U.S. from the Jiangxi province in China about 20 years ago, agreed with the researchers’ findings. Liu, 55, is now executive director of the Chicago-based Midwest Asian Health Association, a non-profit organization that participates in community outreach programs concerning health care for Asians.

She said that Chinese culture promotes the idea that suffering is necessary for personal growth. She said this is prevalent throughout Chinese society, from parenting styles to methods of entertainment. She said she remembers that most of the Chinese movies she saw had sad endings.

“There is a philosophy that we come to the world to suffer, learn from suffering and grow,” she said. “If you don’t experience hardship, then you’re spiritually weak.”

Based on that mindset, Kim and Leu agreed that mindfulness meditation, which has Buddhist roots, is an effective therapy method for Asians. Mindfulness involves acknowledging that negative feelings arise and will pass, rather than trying to replace them with positive thinking, Kim said.

“That’s a pretty viable approach and treatment practice for working with Asians,” she said.

Leu said these findings have significant implications for mental health professionals around the world, since Asians make up more than 60 percent of the global population. She said therapists who treat the victims of the recent natural disasters in Japan should consider the study’s findings.

This new research can also help address the high suicide rates in Asian countries. According to the World Health Organization, the suicide rate for Chinese women in Hong Kong was 11.5 per 100,000 in 2006. In contrast, 4.5 per 100,000 U.S. women committed suicide in 2005.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that the suicide rate for Asian and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. was 6.2 per 100,000 in 2007. Leu said she plans to continue her research in collaboration with people in China to develop culturally appropriate depression therapies.