Monday, July 14, 2014

Why don't we see a close relationship between low negative emotion and high positive emotion?

Think about how you felt yesterday. Did you feel much pain, worry, sadness, stress or anger? If you felt less of those negative emotions than the world average, then do you think it would be reasonable to predict that your experience of positive emotions might be higher than the world average? The relevant positive experiences are smiling and laughing a lot, feeling enjoyment, well-rested and treated with respect, and learning or doing something interesting.

Apparently that prediction is not as reasonable as I thought it would be. People in countries where average levels of negative emotion are relatively low do not necessarily have relatively high average levels of positive emotion. This is apparent in the Figure below which has been drawn from data from recent polls conducted by the Gallup organisation.

The Figure does show an inverse correlation between positive and negative emotion, but most of the action is at the upper end of negative emotion. It seems to be much less common for people with high negative emotion to also experience high positive emotion than it is for people who experience low negative emotion to also experience low positive emotion.

Interestingly, the chart also shows that the average of positive emotion for people in Bhutan - the home of Gross National Happiness (GNH) - is low by comparison with both of its giant neighbours, China and India. Gallup has suggested that Bhutan’s low score on positive emotion is attributable to the fact that the percentage of the population who feel that they are treated with a “great deal of respect” was the lowest for all countries included in the 2013 survey. Perhaps this reflects the restrictions on individual liberty imposed by the government in pursuit of its GNH objective. It is also possible that the GNH objective gives participants in happiness surveys an incentive to use their responses to tell the government that they are not happy with its performance. 
However, the main point I want to make concerns the salient characteristics of the countries which combine low negative emotion with low positive emotion or unusually high positive emotion. Most of the countries in the first category were formerly members of the Soviet Union (shown with red diamonds). By contrast, most Latin American countries (shown with purple diamonds) have unusually high positive emotion scores.

The most likely explanation of the different emotional experiences of people in the former Soviet Union and Latin America is the development of shared frames of mind (cultural framing). Sonja Lyubomirsky has observed that expressions of happiness or success in Russia are often perceived as inviting envy, resentment, and suspicion, at least partly because there is a cultural belief in Russia that anyone who is happy or successful might have used immoral means for achieving these states. (Reported in a recent article on happiness aversion by Mohsen Joshanloo and Dan Weijers). I guess such beliefs could have been reinforced by living under communism and the regimes that have followed the fall of communism. It is also possible that negative emotions would be understated in a culture where people had incentives to adopt a “must not complain” attitude to life.

With regard to Latin America, Jon Clifton, the author of the report of the Gallup survey suggests:
That so many people are reporting positive emotions in Latin America at least partly reflects the cultural tendency in the region to focus on the positives in life”.

There is evidence (for example in a report by Eduardo Loro) that when people in Latin America are asked about their health, they tend to report a higher level of satisfaction than is warranted, given objective indicators of their health status.

The existence of such a cultural bias does not mean that the high positive emotion reported for Latin America is not genuinely felt. Research by Mohsen Joshanloo provides some evidence of lower happiness aversion in Latin America than in many other parts of the world. It seems reasonable to predict that the high positive emotion in Latin America would provide health benefits e.g. lower rates of hypertension, as in other parts of the world (see research by David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald). Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find studies that control for the relevant variables to confirm whether that is the case. There are studies suggesting that rates of hypertension are relatively high in some Latin American countries, but that seems to be attributable to obesity and other risk factors.  

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