So Good It’s Bad: Positive Psychology Gone Wrong (Part IV: Positive Emotions Across Cultures)

Throughout my *undoubtedly* riveting blog posts I’ve talked a lot about positive emotions and how they aren’t always good for us. While the theories and findings I’ve discussed are fascinating, they’re also kind of (gasp!) boring. Wait, what? How can all of this paradoxical information concerning how wanting to feel good can sometimes be bad be boring, you ask? Well, the answer is really quite simple: almost all of these studies have been conducted on a relatively homogenous subset of people drawn from the broader American population (read: Caucasian college students). Wouldn’t it be even more interesting to understand how positive emotions work (and don’t work) across the globe? I certainly think so! Consequently, while we know very little about the cultural neuroscience of positive emotions (Hechtman, Raila, Chiao, & Gruber, 2013), we’ll spend this post getting up-to-speed on recent work concerning cultural variation in positive emotions.

Are Positive Emotions Universally Valued, Experienced, and Expressed?

It's [not such a] small world,  after all[?] (Image retrieved from /2439/4040970541_dd77b982dc.jpg)

It’s not such a small world, after all?
(Image retrieved from

Whenever you see someone smile, that probably means that they’re experiencing some type of positive emotion, right? That seems intuitive. But do people always smile when they’re happy? Furthermore, does the reason why people smile stay the same across cultures? Well, in a word, no. We know, for example, that American people report experiencing more individualistic types of positive emotions (e.g., pride), whereas Japanese people tend to report experiencing more interpersonal types of positive emotions (e.g., friendliness) (Kitayama, Markus, & Kurokawa, 2000). Other studies have additionally suggested that Western cultures tend to value experiencing more positive (relative to negative) emotions, whereas Eastern cultures tend to want to experience a balanced number of both positive and negative emotions (Uchida, Norasakkunkit, & Kitayama, 2004). These valuations aren’t meaningless, either; they affect important aspects of decision-making. Perhaps this explains why people who value high-arousal positive affect tend to choose high-arousal positive affect healthcare providers, whereas people who value low-arousal positive affect tend to choose low-arousal positive affect healthcare providers (Sims, Tsai, Koopmann-Holm, Thomas, & Goldstein, 2014).

Although differences in self-reported positive emotion valuation are intriguing in and of themselves, it seems that these differences are also instantiated within the brain. People from individualistic and interpersonally-oriented cultures tend to activate their medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain implicated in self-focused thinking, more when they’re thinking about themselves in culturally-congruent (relative to culturally-incongruent) contexts (Chiao et al., 2009). Thus, it seems that people from different cultures have sociobiological reasons for wanting to feel differently, which may also lead to the differential experience of positive emotions across cultures.

It’s cool that people from different cultures tend to value and experience positive emotions differently, but how do they express their positive emotions to other people? Surprise, surprise: research suggests that cultural variation exists there, too. One study found that expressing positive emotions (e.g., smiling) when interacting with a same-ethnicity partner was related to lower blood pressure in European American women, but was associated with higher blood pressure in Asian American women, which suggests culture may affect our interpretation of emotional expressions during social interactions (Butler, Lee, & Gross, 2009). Yet another study demonstrated that when European American romantic partners converse they tend to experience either positive or negative emotions, whereas Asian American couples tend to experience both positive and negative emotions (Shiota, Campos, Gonzaga, Keltner, & Peng, 2010). Hence, positive emotions seem to be valued, experienced, and expressed differently across cultures.

What About Positive Emotion, Culture, and Psychopathology?

Given what you now know about the variation in valuing, experiencing, and expressing positive emotions across cultures, it’s perhaps unsurprising that positive emotions also differentially affect psychopathology cross-culturally. For instance, we know that depression is debilitating, but how it’s debilitating depends on culture. In the case of positive emotions, depressed European Americans tend to feel and express less positive emotions than non-depressed European Americans, but depressed Asian Americans tend to feel and express just as many positive emotions, if not more positive emotions, than non-depressed Asian Americans (Chentsova-Dutton, Tsai, & Gotlib, 2010). There’s also evidence that being raised in an individualistic or interpersonally-oriented culture is associated with carrying different forms of the serotonin transporter gene (specifically, 5-HTTLPR), which has been shown to predict the likelihood of developing certain affective disorders (Chiao & Blizinsky, 2010). Unfortunately, though it seems like positive emotions affect psychopathology differently across cultures, we know little else about how these differences arise, let alone how they affect subsequent treatment outcomes.

Fortunately, however, future cultural neuroscience studies could help us answer additional questions about how to cross-culturally treat various psychopathologies. In the case of Bipolar I disorder, we could ascertain whether European Americans (who tend to value more high-arousal positive affect) suffer from the disorder because of amplified reward sensitivity in the orbitofrontal cortex, as has been proposed (Hechtman et al., 2013). Relatedly, we could see whether Asian Americans (who tend to value low-arousal positive affect) with Bipolar I disorder may be more successful at activating circuitry related to down-regulating positive emotions than European Americans with the same disorder (Hechtman et al., 2013). We therefore have many avenues for future research that could shed light on treatment options for the global health crises psychopathologies present.

Wrapping It All Up

So what’s the take-away point from today? Well, obviously, I hope you learned that, while there is little evidence concerning the cultural neuroscience of positive emotions, there is cultural variation in the extent to which people value, experience, express, and, yes, sometimes even suffer from positive emotions. More broadly, though, I hope you come away from these blog posts with a sense that positive emotions are not universally good for everyone, all the time, in every context. If we remember that I think the world could become a much happier (but not necessarily smaller!) place.


Butler, E.A., Lee, T.L., & Gross, J.J. (2009). Does expressing your emotions raise or lower your blood pressure? The answer depends on cultural context. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 40(3), 510-517.

Chentsova-Dutton, Y. E., Tsai, J. L., & Gotlib, I. H. (2010). Further evidence for the cultural norm hypothesis: Positive emotion in depressed and control European American and Asian American women. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 16(2), 284-295.

Chiao, J. Y. & Blizinsky, K. D. (2010).  Culture-gene coevolution of individualism-collectivism and the serotonin transporter gene (5-HTTLPR).  Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 277(1681), 529-537.

Chiao, J. Y., Harada, T., Komeda, H., Li, Z., Mano, Y., Saito, D., … & Iidaka, T. (2009). Neural basis of individualistic and collectivistic views of self. Human Brain Mapping30(9), 2813-2820.

Hechtman, L. A., Raila, H., Chiao, J. Y., & Gruber, J. (2013). Positive emotion regulation and psychopathology: A transdiagnostic cultural neuroscience approach. Journal of Experimental Psychopathology4(5), 502-528.

Kitayama, S., Markus, H. R., & Kurokawa, M. (2000). Culture, emotion, and well-being: Good feelings in Japan and the United States. Cognition & Emotion, 14(1), 93-124.

Shiota, M. N., Campos, B., Gonzaga, G. C., Keltner, D., & Peng, K. (2010). I love you but…: Cultural differences in emotional complexity during interaction with a romantic partner. Cognition and Emotion, 24(5), 786-799.

Sims, T., Tsai, J. L., Koopmann-Holm, B., Thomas, E. A., & Goldstein, M. K. (2014). Choosing a physician depends on how you want to feel: The role of ideal affect in health-related decision making. Emotion, 14(1), 187-192.

Uchida, Y., Norasakkunkit, V., & Kitayama, S. (2004). Cultural constructions of happiness: Theory and empirical evidence. Journal of Happiness Studies, 5(3), 223-239.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.