Americans Less Happy with Positive Events than Asians

Frowning Child

[Photo by WadeB]

A new study finds that when positive events happen to European Americans, they do not increase happiness as much as for Japanese, Asian Americans and Koreans. The Washington Post reports that on average, for each single negative event a European American experiences, they need 1.91 positive events to bring them back to the same level of happiness. For Koreans it is 1.32, for Asian Americans it is 1.31 and for Japanese it is 1:1. How can this be explained?

One possibility is that European Americans have a more comfortable lifestyle. As a result they are less able to cope with negative events since they are less accustomed to them. Alternatively, or in addition, there may be cultural differences at work here. European Americans may be expecting higher levels of positive events – they feel entitled – compared to the other groups.

It’s easy to dismiss the idea that as we become accustomed to a good lifestyle, we are less appreciative of positive events and come to routinely expect them. But the cultural slant provides an intriguing alternative perspective. What if European American cultures encourage being dismissive of small (read cheap) pleasures in favour of more grandiose (read expensive) pleasures? And at the same time, Asian cultures encourage the enjoyment of small pleasures?

Either way expectations about positive events are probably a powerful force here, whether they are culturally or economically mediated. Happiness is also probably subject to the law of diminishing returns, here described by Thomas Bradury from UCLA’s marriage lab in terms of kissing:

“Positive events in our intimate relationships lose their force over time; consider for example, the fifth time you kissed your partner versus the most recent time. A preponderance of positive events in a relationship might somehow be beneficial to one’s global happiness but detrimental to one’s mood or daily happiness, in the sense that having high expectations for positive events reduces the impact of each new one.”

Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky explains it from another perspective:

“I have some friends who are very well off and have great lives. If you ask them, they will say, ‘I am very happy,’ but the most minor negative events will make them unhappy. If they are traveling first class, they get upset if they have to wait in line. They live in a mansion, but a little noise from their neighbors infuriates them, because their expectations are so high. Their overall happiness is high, but they have a lot of daily annoyances.”

Although the problems of the over-privileged are difficult to sympathise with – oh you poor thing you had to wait in line? – the general point is well made and relevant to most of us at one time or another.

The research by Shigehiro Oishi from the University of Virginia and colleagues is published in the October issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 1 October 2007

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