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Surprising Science

Happiness Isn’t Always a Good Thing

A growing body of research challenges whether most humans see "positive" emotions as better than ordinary ones—whether feeling happy actually leads, in the end, to a good life.

What’s the Latest Development?

“In a new paper in the journal Emotion, a team of psychologists at the University of Washington finds that not everyone sees positive emotions such as joviality and self-assurance as unequivocally good. Depending on your ethnic background, you may find such emotions suspicious and even dangerous. The U.W. team, led by psychologist Janxin Leu, surveyed more than 600 students from three groups: European-Americans, Asian-American U.S. citizens, and Asian immigrants to the U.S. Their research built on previous studies that have found, for example, that while Americans associate feelings of happiness with personal achievement, the Japanese associate those feelings with an entire society’s harmony.”

What’s the Big Idea?

“Why would Asians and European Americans respond to happiness so differently? One reason suggested in the paper is that Asians seem to define advancement of social harmony as more worthy than mere individual success. This theory about Asian culture is certainly not new—philosophers have compared Confucian ideals regarding interpersonal enlightenment with Western ideals regarding individual achievement at least since the 19th century. The new paper doesn’t take a stand on how Asians and Americans differ in their views, but it does show, through its controlled experiments, that positive emotions are less important to Asian-born Asians than to Americans.”


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