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Negative emotions are worse for the health of Americans than Japanese

Feeling unhappy is bad for health. Negative emotions are tied to mental illness and chronic physical conditions, suggesting that in general, happier means healthier. However, a new study has found that bad feelings seem to make Americans sicker than they make Japanese people, and culture could be to blame.

Negative emotions have a bigger impact on the health of Americans than Japanese people. 

CIFAR Associate Hazel Markus (Stanford University) and colleagues analyzed data from the MIDUS-MIDJA dataset, which contained survey responses from people in Japan and the U.S. about how often they felt nervous, hopeless, afraid, angry or any of several other negative emotions. The researchers compared the results to health and found that Americans who felt badly were much more likely to be sick than Japanese people who were equally unhappy.

Markus, a social psychologist in the Successful Societies program, says the differences might be cultural.

“Cultural grounding makes a huge difference in how we think about what it means to be a successful and healthy person and therefore what it means to be a successful and healthy society,” Markus says.

The Western world emphasizes individualism, which holds that people are responsible for their own success, their actions and their happiness. This creates the perception that if you’re feeling bad, it’s your fault.

“There’s so much in the West and certainly in popular culture, these days in particular, which emphasizes positivity — that you should avoid negative feelings — direct your feet to the sunny side of the street and make lemonade,” Markus says. “Feeling good is your responsibility. Positive feelings indicate that you are a good and successful person.”

By contrast, Japanese culture and many others outside of the Western world view occasional bad feelings as inevitable and as natural part of everyday social life.

“You recognize that bad feelings have to do with your social world, your relationships with others,” Markus says. “You also recognize that situations will change and so will your negative feelings.” Good people can have bad feelings; it is not a failing.

This view is related to many cultural factors including the influence of religious traditions, such as Buddhism, which hold that reality is ever changing and the good is always intertwined with the bad. Markus says happiness resembles something more like contentment in Japan, which is very different than the buzzing, high-on-life variety of happiness the American Dream has touted for decades. As a result, it seems that Japanese people don’t get so down about feeling down.

The research paper illustrates this point by quoting a Japanese psychiatrist from a story in the New York Times. “Melancholia, sensitivity, fragility — these are not negative things in a Japanese context,” the psychiatrist said. “It never occurred to us that we should try to remove them, because it never occurred to us that they were bad.”

Mental illness is an issue in Japan, which has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. In general, however, negative feelings don’t have the same strong impact on physical and mental health as they do in the U.S.. Markus says North Americans might learn to think more broadly about what is bringing them down, rather than only looking inward for the source of their sadness, and perhaps to expect that some negative feelings are inevitable.

The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.

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