I remember exactly where I was standing when my mom called to tell me that my uncle—her brother—had died. I was visiting my boyfriend at his university, and as I took the call I stood over by the window in the common room of his dorm suite and looked out at the trees. I continued to stand there after I hung up, staring hard at those trees, waiting for myself to cry. The longer I stood, and the longer my eyes stayed dry, the worse I felt. Under the mix of grief and relief (my uncle had been sick for a while) there was also guilt that I wasn't responding to the situation in the "correct" way. That feeling stuck with me on the drive from North Carolina to Connecticut for the funeral, and throughout the service itself.
Years later, I sat in the stands during my graduate school graduation, overwhelmed and nervous, looking at all the beaming faces around me. Was I supposed to be grinning like that, too? Why didn't I feel happier?
Maya Tamir, a psychology professor at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, recently set out to address this cognitive dissonance that many people often feel. Tamir, who studies emotion and self-regulation, says there's an ongoing conflict between the assumption that pleasant emotions equal happiness and the assumption that all emotions are valuable—no matter how pleasant or unpleasant they are.
She wanted to find out what balance of emotions could actually lead to the happiest and most fulfilling life, so she surveyed more than 2,000 university students in eight different countries about their life satisfaction, experiences with depression, and desired emotions. The results, published today in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, show the first actual evidence of a relationship between happiness and experiencing desired emotions—even ones that aren't pleasant.
Most of the study participants—who hailed from the US, Brazil, China, Germany, Ghana, Israel, Poland and Singapore—wanted to experience more good feelings and fewer bad ones, but an interesting 11 percent wanted to feel less love and empathy, and 10 percent felt they should feel more anger or hatred. Overall, people felt happier when their actual emotions matched up with the ones they wanted to feel. The researchers found that which emotions were desired had a lot to do with the participant's culture.
"Understanding which emotions we 'should' feel connects us to our social environment, highlights the values that we share and helps us adhere to them," Tamir says. In the US for example, we prioritize individualism, so pride is pretty universally seen as a "right" emotion to have. In China, a more collective society, it's the opposite.
But it can't be good to beat ourselves up for not feeling sad or depressed when we think we "should," right? Tamir notes that problems do arise when the emotional standards we set for ourselves become unrealistic. In some parts of the world, there's too much pressure to tamp down your excitement. In the US, we apparently have the opposite problem.
"We have very high standards when it comes to emotions such as joy and excitement, which can create a gap that would result in feeling less happy overall," Tamir says. "In a world where people in different cultures value very different emotions, our findings suggest there is no single emotion to pursue for happiness, but a large range, depending on what each individual values." In other words, if you feel like feeling crappy—or if you don't—let yourself, regardless of what seems "right" for the situation. It might make you happier in the long run.
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