Jeanne Tsai: We’re All Pursuing Happiness. But What Kind? Food for Lifelong Thought at the 2008 Bing Distinguished Lecture
By Simon Firth, Writer and Bing Parent
Scholars have ruminated on what makes us happy and why since at least the time of Aristotle. “But it’s only been in the last two decades that psychologists have begun to study well-being and happiness,” Stanford’s Professor Jeanne Tsai told a packed house at Bing School on May 29th, where she delivered the 2008 Bing Nursery School Distinguished Lecture. In introducing Tsai’s presentation Bing’s director, Jeanne Lepper, pointed out that Tsai herself has been in the forefront of that study and in the process has become, in Lepper’s words, “one of the world’s experts on the study of emotion.” Tsai’s particular interest is in asking whether we do all really want to be happy and, if we do, whether we all want to be happy in the same way.
Do We All Want to Be Happy?
The answer to the first question turns out to be a pretty unequivocal yes, Tsai said. But that was far from a foregone conclusion when she first began her studies. Until recently, most cross-cultural research into emotions was descriptive rather than empirical. “And these studies,” explained Tsai, “really suggested that emotions are primarily culturally shaped; and that cultures vary significantly in the emotions that people feel.”
But when Tsai took people of very different cultural backgrounds into the laboratory and measured their responses to the same sets of emotion-provoking stimuli, their emotional responses (measured in terms of pulse, questionnaires about how they were feeling and catalogs of facial expressions) varied very little between the groups. So how to explain the long-held, ethnographically-based idea that emotions are a culturally-defined phenomena?
Tsai theorized that it arose from a difference between the emotions we actually feel (our “actual affect”) and the emotions we would like to feel (our “ideal affect”). While what we feel is pretty similar across cultures, Tsai guessed, what we want to feel might vary depending on the culture in which we are raised.“This might seem like an obvious statement,” she acknowledged, “but in psychology most of the research is really focused on how much people actually feel.”
How people want to feel, though, it turns out, is very much influenced by culture. In her research Tsai has found a particular difference between the kinds of happiness to which people aspire. Feelings of relaxation, calm, and peacefulness (known as “low arousal positive states”) are valued much more by people living in Far Eastern countries like China or Taiwan, for example. In contrast, people in the USA aspire to a kind of happiness defined by enthusiasm, excitement, and elation (“high arousal positive states”).
It Starts in Childhood.
Tsai quickly established that this cultural difference in happiness preferences could not be explained by differences in individual temperaments. It also held for people of different socio-economic backgrounds and from young adulthood into old age (even though you might expect older westerners to wish for a quieter life as they aged, that turned out not to really be the case). If these differences really were cultural, Tsai reasoned, they should also be present at a very early age. And that brought her to Bing Nursery School.
At Bing Tsai looked at populations of children brought up in European-American and Asian-American environments and compared both groups with preschoolers growing up in Taiwan. All were presented, explained Tsai, “with two smiley faces: an excitement smile and a calm smile, and we asked the preschoolers to tell us which one they would rather be, and which one they thought was more happy.” Consistent with her adult data, she found that the European-American preschoolers preferred the excitement smile more than the Taiwanese-Chinese preschoolers, and the Asian-American preschoolers were right in the middle. Similarly, the European-American preschoolers perceived the excitement smiles as more happy, compared to the Taiwanese-Chinese preschoolers. And, again, the Asian-American preschoolers were right in the middle. Children also listened to the story of two young friends enjoying a day swimming in which one floats calmly and the other splashes and jumps in excitement. Which child would they rather be? “The European-American kids preferred the more exciting activities,” reported Tsai, “or said they were more like the character who liked to engage in the activity in an exciting way, compared to the Taiwanese-Chinese. And, again, the Asian-Americans were right in the middle.” These differences again held when temperament (as reported by their teachers) was accounted for and, somewhat surprisingly, held true for both boys and girls.
How It Happens.
If this cultural difference exists, there must be a cultural mechanism responsible for it and Tsai’s next series of studies at Bing looked at what that might be. A content study of best-selling storybooks in Taiwan and the USA provided one clue. “We looked at the top ten storybooks in one year,” Tsai recalled, “and we coded the emotional expressions of the characters. We looked at the degree to which an expression was an excited smile versus a calm smile. Then we also looked at the size of the smile relative to the size of the face.” What she and her assistants found was that both the American and Taiwanese books featured characters smiling roughly the same number of times. But the characters in the American books far more frequently displayed wide-mouthed, excited smiles than their Taiwanese counterparts.
A third study at Bing and in Taiwan saw groups of children from different cultural backgrounds being read a story featuring either calm or excited play and then being asked to create a “perfect playground” in which they could have equipment that supported either calm and relaxing play (bean bags and wind chimes, say) or equipment that supported loud play (perhaps drums and trampolines). Here, children who were read the exciting story chose more exciting things to put in their perfect playground compared to the children who were read the calm story—and this was true whatever cultural background they came from.
Together these studies suggest, Tsai reasoned, “that, at least in the short term, being exposed to a certain kind of content influences a child’s affective preferences.” And, although it remains an inference, she imagines that the same thing happens to a much greater degree as children grow up in a particular culture—the more they see happiness represented as either a low or high arousal emotion, the more they wish for that kind of happiness themselves.
A Theory of Affect Valuation.
Further content studies of cultural products (such as the faces of people in women’s magazines) have shown that differences in the depiction of happiness hold true throughout Asian and Western cultures. They’re even there, it turns out, when you examine the content of cultural bedrocks such as classic religious texts like the Bible or the Buddhist sutras. So what could account for these long-lived differences in the kinds of happiness, or ideal affect, that people in different cultures are looking to pursue?
Tsai’s supposition is that it’s a reflection of long-held cultural differences in interpersonal goals. Research by Stanford’s Hazel Markus has shown that American culture puts an emphasis on influencing others or influencing your environment. “And, in order to influence your environment or influence other people,” noted Tsai, “you have to act on your environment or act on other people, and action requires high arousal states.” In contrast, she said, “in many collectivistic contexts, like many East Asian cultures, the emphasis is really on adjusting to others. So, you change your own needs to fit with those of others. That requires assessing what other people want, and in order to assess what other people want, you have to suspend action, and the suspension of action is associated with a decrease in arousal.”
Subsequent laboratory studies have supported this explanation and suggest that it has power as a theoretical framework—in the form of what Tsai has dubbed Affect Valuation Theory—a theory that, if valid, has implications for a number of things important to our everyday lives. One example is what it might tell us about what we do to make ourselves feel better—what psychologists call “mood-producing behavior.” Take vacations. A number of studies have shown that cultural differences exist between what people of different cultures choose to do on a vacation to feel good (wanting to relax on a beach versus trekking through the rain forest, for example). However, explained Tsai, “there’s never been a really good theory about why this is true. We argue that it’s in part due to ideal affect.” If you know how people define happiness, in other words, you’ll be able to predict their ideal vacation.
An Impact on Health.
Ideal affect might also have important implications for how we define health and happiness. Tsai’s most recent research has shown that American measures of well-being and happiness, perhaps not surprisingly, are defined in terms of excitement states.“That,” Tsai argued, “would be fine if they were only used in American culture with European-American samples. But, they’re actually used internationally, and this illustrates a cultural bias in terms of how people are defining happiness and well-being.” Depression, she pointed out, is often defined in terms of an absence of positive emotional states. But if you are defining positive emotional states only as excitement states, you’re potentially bringing a cultural bias to your clinical definitions of depression. Affect Valuation Theory might even improve the effectiveness of different clinical treatments by targeting a patient’s ideal affect, Tsai suggested. “Bipolar patients in the United States are notorious for not complying with their Lithium treatment,” she explained, “because the Lithium treatment brings them from their high manic state to a lower calm state, and who wants that in American culture?” But in Hong Kong, she said, bipolar patients have much lower non-compliance rates. “And we predict that that’s because the Lithium treatment is bringing them to the culturally desirable state.”