When less is more

October 18, 2007

Are you happy? Well don't try to be happier; you might become less happy. That is the gist of a multi-cultural study published this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The study by University of Virginia psychology professor Shigehiro Oishi and colleagues at three other institutions found that, on average, European-Americans claim to be happy in general - more happy than Asian-Americans or Koreans or Japanese - but are more easily made less happy by negative events, and recover at a slower rate from negative events, than their counterparts in Asia or with an Asian ancestry. On the other hand, Koreans, Japanese, and to a lesser extent, Asian-Americans, are less happy in general, but recover their emotional equilibrium more readily after a setback than European-Americans.

"We found that the more positive events a person has, the more they feel the effects of a negative event," Oishi said. "People seem to dwell on the negative thing when they have a large number of good events in their life.

"It is like the person who is used to flying first class and becomes very annoyed if there is a half-hour delay. But the person who flies economy class accepts the delay in stride."

Oishi, a social psychologist who grew up in Japan and then moved to the United States at 23, is interested in comparing how people from East Asia and the United States respond to the daily events of life.

He and his colleagues surveyed more than 350 college students in Japan, Korea and the United States over a three-week period. The students recorded daily their general state of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with life, as well as the number of positive and negative events they had during the course of each day.

The researchers found that the European-Americans needed nearly two positive events (such as getting complimented or getting an A) to return to their normal level of happiness after each negative event, such as getting a parking ticket or a lower grade than expected. The Koreans, Japanese and Asian-Americans generally needed only one positive event to make up for each negative event.

Oishi said that people who become accustomed to numerous positive or happy events in their life are more likely to take a harder fall than people who have learned to accept the bad with the good. And because negative events have such a strong effect when occurring in the midst of numerous positive events, people find it difficult to be extremely happy. They reach a point of diminishing returns.

This is why the extreme happiness people may feel after buying a new car or a house, or getting married, can be rapidly diminished when the payments come due or the daily spats begin. It becomes a problem of ratio, or perspective.

"In general, it's good to have a positive perspective," Oishi said, "But unless you can switch your mindset to accept the negative facts of everyday life -- that these things happen and must be accepted -- it becomes very hard to maintain a comfortable level of satisfaction."

His advice: "Don't try to be happier."
-end-
His co-authors are Ed Diener, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and The Gallup Organization, Dong-Won Choi of California State University, East Bay; Chu Kim-Prieto of the College of New Jersey, and Incheol Choi of Seoul National University.

University of Virginia

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