Why We Owe It To Others To Be Positive

Expressing positive emotions lifts everyone's mood, according to new research.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | October 11, 2021

A new research paper appearing in the Journal of Positive Psychology explores some of the lesser-known intricacies of cross-national comparisons of happiness. For one, the authors suggest it's not enough to look at how often people experience happiness internally, but that outward expressions of happiness are important as well. They also suggest that the things people do to maintain their happiness don't always promote the happiness of others or the group as a whole.

"In this paper, we introduce the concept of 'societal emotional environment': the emotional climate of a society, operationalized as the degree to which positive and negative emotions are expressed in a society," say the scientists, led by Kuba Krys of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

The inspiration for this work, according to the authors, came from the observation that some cultures, like Confucian Asians, tend to be more subdued in their expression of positive emotions (for example, preferring emotional states such as serenity and calmness) while other cultures, such as Latin American cultures, prefer to express high arousal positive emotions such as excitement and elation.

"The cultural differences in emotion expression are particularly interesting when one considers societal rankings of life satisfaction," comment the authors. "Confucian countries tend to occupy lower positions of these rankings whereas Latin Americans are typically near the top."

In other words, national happiness may be less about what we feel and more about what we express.

To explore this idea in more detail, the authors surveyed approximately 12,000 participants in 49 countries. In the survey, respondents were asked to report both the frequency with which they experienced and the frequency with which they expressed 30 positive and negative emotions. The researchers also asked respondents to rate their life satisfaction. This allowed the authors to examine differences in positive and negative emotional experience and expression and to see how these factors contributed to life satisfaction.

Consistent with previous research, they found Latin American countries to be among the highest on measures of positive emotional expression.

"Our study confirmed that Latin American countries ranked high on positive societal emotional environment," state the authors. "Vibrant, intense, and expressed positive emotions may make life in Latin America exceptionally satisfactory."

According to the data, the five countries that ranked highest on positive emotional expression were Ghana, Indonesia, El Salvador, Italy, and Columbia. The five countries that ranked lowest were the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Japan, Iceland, and Poland.

"Those in countries with the lowest positive societal emotional environment scores (e.g., United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Japan) reported expressing positive emotions only around a couple of times a week on average, while those in countries with the highest positive societal emotional environment scores (e.g., Ghana, El Salvador, Italy) reported expressing positive emotions around a couple of times a day on average," say the authors.

The scientists then looked at the effect of negative emotional expression on life satisfaction.

"We were able to test and find support for our proposed 'double-edged sword' model of negative emotion regulation," say the authors. "Negative emotion expression is simultaneously associated with positives (for the individual) and negatives (for others in society)."

They take this as evidence that expressions of negativity can sour society as a whole.

"Our findings question the idea that the expression of emotions is unambiguously beneficial," conclude the researchers. "We show that (negative) emotion expression may carry more than minor negative consequences. We hope that this nuanced perspective on emotion expression finds its way into the emotion regulation literature, as well as in discourse in clinical, positive, and popular psychology more broadly."

An interview with Kuba Krys discussing the idea of societal emotional environment can be found here: Why expressing happiness helps everyone