Thinking happy thoughts as a way to feel better may not be beneficial across all cultures, a new study shows.
Focusing on positive emotions does not help Asians cope with stress and depression, according to a survey of college students.
For European-Americans, however, the more stress and depression they felt, the fewer positive emotions they reported.
The findings suggest psychotherapies emphasizing positive emotions, which can relieve stress and depression in white populations, may not work for Asians, who make up 60 percent of the world population.
The study, published in the journal Emotion, could have implications for helping the Japanese recover from natural disasters and subsequent nuclear crisis in March, and for Chinese coping with post-traumatic stress following the 2008 Sichuan province earthquake.
"If we are to relieve some of the trauma from the tsunami and earthquakes, we have to be careful of imparting Western therapies," says Janxin Leu, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington. "I worry that if a therapy which relies on positive emotions and thinking is used with Asian patients, it will not be effective and may even make patients feel worse."
Mindfulness therapies that encourage patients to pay attention to the good and the bad will likely work better, she adds.
Leu and colleagues asked 633 college students—a mix of Asian immigrants, Asian Americans, and European Americans—to rate how much stress and depression they felt and how often they've been in a sad mood, felt worthless, or had sleep or appetite changes.
The participants also rated the intensity of the positive emotions that they felt, including feelings of serenity, joy, confidence and attentiveness.
For European-American participants, there was a strong correlation showing that the more positive emotions they expressed, the less depression or stress they reported. The correlation was more subtle among Asian-Americans, but for Asians, there was no correlation between positive emotions and depression and stress.
The findings show that Asians interpret and react to positive emotions differently in regards to their mental health.
Upon winning an award, for instance, the researchers say a typical response would be "I'm so happy that I'm afraid." The award would trigger feelings of happiness for the achievement combined with concern that others would be jealous.
This blend of emotions is common among Asians, Leu says, and it may be shaped by Buddhist beliefs that happiness either leads to suffering or is impossible to obtain.
"Happiness signals that something bad will happen next; happiness is fleeting," she adds. Similarly, yin-and-yang attitudes may instill views that life is a natural balance of good and bad.
For Asians with depression, Leu says, therapies likely to work the best are those that encourage patients to "observe when they feel good and bad and notice that both will disappear. Everything passes."
Edited by: Lawyer Asad