Why Expressing Happiness Helps All Of Us

Psychologist Kuba Krys gives new meaning to the phrase, 'be happy for others.'

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | October 3, 2021

A new paper appearing in the Journal of Positive Psychology explores some of the intricacies of cross-national comparisons of happiness by examining the emotional environment of 49 countries around the world. Notably, the authors found Latin American and Western European countries to be among the happiest nations in the world, while the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, and Japan ranked at the bottom of the list.

I recently spoke with Kuba Krys, a psychologist at the Polish Academy of Sciences and the lead author of the new research, to discuss his findings in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of societal emotions and what did you find?

One of the two main inspirations was the fact that Latin American societies are high on indicators of societal happiness, but science did not provide a convincing explanation for this phenomenon yet. We assumed that the vibrant and joyful emotions that Latin Americans frequently express may be the key. If you live among people who express a lot of positive emotions, it shall increase your happiness.

In other words, the emotions people around us express constitute our "societal emotional environment." This environment impacts our life satisfaction. Cultures differ in their societal emotional environment — in some societies, positive emotions are more frequently expressed than in others. Latin American societies are among those with the highest positive societal emotional environment. Our data lend support to this reasoning.

The second inspiration was my long-lasting discomfort with the consensus among psychologists that the expression of emotions is good, no matter what type of emotions these are: positive or negative. I was born in Poland, where people express a lot of negative emotions. And, in my opinion, these expressed negative emotions definitely do not build "societal capital." We assumed that the expression of negative emotions, even if beneficial for the expresser, could be harmful for people around them. In other words, the expression of negative emotions has both positive and negative consequences at the same time. We framed this reasoning into the "double-edged sword" model of negative emotion expression. With our data, we found support for this model.

According to your analysis, what were some of the happiest countries? What were some of the least happy?

Happiest are, as usual in such kind of rankings, Latin Americans and Western Europeans. The lowest level of happiness we found were among Eastern Europeans and Confucians. Importantly, the lowest levels of happiness were within the "happiness" range. I mean, people in less happy nations are still happy, but less than those in the happiest nations. In other words, Eastern Europeans and Confucians are moderately happy while Western Europeans and Latin Americans report being very happy.

What takeaways does your research, or other related research, hold that individuals may be able to use to improve their current and future life satisfaction?

The best takeaway is to reframe the question. Let's stop thinking only about how to improve our own happiness, but let's think about the happiness of people around us. Whatever we do, it influences people around us. Let's think we are a part of a broader community. If we set up a norm of taking care of people around us, this "goodness" will come back to us. Not because of karma. Because of psychological processes.