David Wilkinson

Banisher of fears, slayer of anxiety & developer of emotional resilience

How our beliefs alter our ability to change our emotions

How our beliefs alter our ability to change our emotions

Following on from the last post "Why we make ourselves feel worse" where I looked at why we make our feelings worse or up-regulate our negative feelings, today I am going to look at some recent evidence to show that our cultural beliefs change our ability to change (up and down regulate) our emotions.

It is widely accepted that people from the east have a different sets of beliefs or logic systems than those in the west. This makes comparisons of such cultures an easy target for researchers, especially given that there are enormous amounts of research data about those differences. The research not only chronicles the logic/belief system or dialectical differences between east and west but has also found that there are significant emotional differences. For example people from east asian cultures tend to report lower levels of self-esteem than people in the west. A whole raft of research has show that Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans report lower life satisfaction, more negative affect (e.g., guilt and shame), and greater anxiety, depression, and pessimism than do western cultural groups. Judgments of happiness and well-being are also lower among individuals in many East Asian countries than in Western nations. Likewise, within various multicultural societies, such as the UK and the US, East Asian minority groups report lower self-esteem, poorer life satisfaction, and greater anxiety and depression than do caucasians and other racial/ethnic groups.

Part of this difference at least is put down to the more collectivistic view of the east where the unity of the group is seen to be more important than any one individual. This situation is almost the opposite in the west, where individual freedom is more important than loyalty to any particular group. Not only that but in the west positive self-regard is a very strong part of the culture, making it highly valued, and one of the aims of many family systems in the home, work and educational systems.

Given the primacy of being happy and of pleasure in the west or what is known as hedonic focus and the primacy of duty, selflessness, service and unity in the east, it is may not be surprising that these broadly different cultures place different levels of importance and therefore expertise in regulating emotions.

A study published this week found that easterners are less motivated to engage in hedonic emotion regulation that westerners. In other words people in the west are much more likely to engage in up-regulation (boosting) of positive emotion and down-regulation (reduction) of negative emotion. Indeed there is evidence that easterners are just much less likely to engage in emotion regulation at all compared to their western counterparts.

The study also found that westerners tend to be able to reduce negative emotions far quicker than easterners and this isn't just about practice. The study found that the main factor are the beliefs of the individual. If your set of beliefs include the fact that you matter less than the group, that emotions have little importance compared to thought, you are much less likely to engage in or understand (at an emotional level) the emotions you are having, how they are connected, how they differ, their associations etc. (emotional literacy) than if you live in a world with beliefs about the importance of being happy for example.

However the story doesn't end there. Our ability to regulate our emotions also appear to be connected to our cultural beliefs about ambiguity and uncertainty, which I will explore in my next blog. The outcomes of which may surprise you, it did me.

There is very strong evidence that our ability to cope and deal with our emotions goes a lot deeper than cultural beliefs. Personal beliefs have been shown to make an impact too. i will look at this in later blogs. 

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