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Joy to the World

A Stanford psychologist examines how culture influences our emotions.

Rod Searcey

HAPPY MEDIUM: Asian-Americans tend to fall in between the Eastern ideal of calm and the Western preference for elation, Tsai’s research shows.

By Kara Platoni

Thanks to assistant professor of psychology Jeanne Tsai, the standard on-the-couch question asked by therapists in the future may not be “How do you feel?” but “How do you want to feel?”

Tsai’s work explores how ethnic culture shapes our emotional lives, particularly our concept of happiness. Her curiosity developed as a Stanford psychology undergraduate, when she realized that some of her discipline’s conventional wisdom didn’t reflect her experience as the American-born child of Taiwanese immigrants. “It was just really clear how a lot of the theories of human behavior that I was learning about didn’t seem completely to apply to Asian-Americans,” recalls Tsai, ’91. Take the idea that healthy young adults “individuate” by distancing themselves from their parents—not necessarily true for Asian families that value multigenerational closeness. And what about the trope of the “stoic” Asian? “My family was really emotional,” Tsai says, laughing. “If anything, they actually talked about how there were some ways in which Americans were hard to read.”

Tsai earned her doctorate at UC-Berkeley and returned to teach at Stanford in 2000. Ever since, her Culture and Emotion Lab has turned out study after study showing striking variations in what sort of happiness people want. European-Americans aspire more often to a high-energy elation—perhaps because American culture is so individualistic and prizes the ability to influence others. However, people raised in more collectivist Asian cultures—which prioritize adjusting to others—aspire more often to a tranquil joy. Asian-Americans, influenced by both cultures, tend to fall somewhere in the middle. “Everybody wants to feel good,” Tsai concludes, “but people want to feel good in different ways.”

Laura Carstensen, chair of the psychology department, says that Tsai’s work is helping fuel a push, both in medical and social science, away from the historical assumption that all bodies and minds behave the same way. “The broader importance for psychology is profound—she’s showing that some of the processes we presumed were basic human processes and tendencies are actually shaped by culture, so they are far more malleable than we thought.”

These differences are not inborn, but are learned very early in life, Tsai says. In one study Tsai asked American and Taiwanese preschoolers to choose between an “excited” smiley face with a wide-open mouth and a “calm” one with a smaller, single-line grin. European-American kids said the excited smile was happier and the one they would rather be, while Taiwanese kids chose the calm one. When read a story about two kids—one who splashed in the swimming pool while the other one floated in an inner tube, one who rocketed high and fast on the swings while the other swung slowly—most Taiwanese kids identified with the “calm” character, while most European-American kids chose the “excited” character.

Where do humans learn how “happy” feels? Well, pretty much everywhere, Tsai notes. Her work has examined all sorts of vehicles for teaching behavior, including children’s storybooks, fashion magazines and religious texts. In one study of American and Taiwanese children’s books, Tsai’s team analyzed how calm or excited the faces and body motion of the characters appeared, even measuring the size of their smiles. Bingo: American storybook characters are more rambunctious and smile wider than those in Taiwanese storybooks. Ditto women’s magazines; American glossies have more Julia Roberts smiles than Mona Lisa ones. Parsing contemporary Christian and Buddhist self-help books showed that the Christian ones more frequently urge readers to feel excitement, while the Buddhist ones mostly urge calm.

Next, Tsai’s lab will investigate other ethnic and socioeconomic groups, and examine how concepts of happiness change with age. In the meantime, Tsai says, her work serves to warn counselors against a one-size-fits-all approach to evaluating mental health. As she points out, many of the tools used to assess depression and anxiety are geared toward an extroverted, typically American concept of well-being—and that might not always be culturally appropriate.

Understanding how a patient conceives of “feeling good” can help therapists choose more fitting treatments and be better attuned to signs of recovery, which in turn encourages better patient compliance, Tsai says. For example, she points out, bipolar Americans are famously reluctant to take lithium, a powerful drug that flattens out the exhilarating “high” of the condition’s manic state. However, in Hong Kong, compliance is much better. Says Tsai, “I think it’s because [the medication] helps them achieve the calm that their culture wants them to feel.”

In an increasingly global society, Tsai’s work may have ramifications outside of the clinic. “We used to live in a world where our communities were quite homogeneous, and now we don’t,” Carstensen says. “All of us are going to start interacting with people shaped by different cultures. It’s going to inform political discussion and relationships.”

With the exception of the occasional pre-lecture caffeine jag, Tsai counts herself a calm-seeker, preferring yoga, meditation and soothing music. Yet she’s proof that different happiness ideals can coexist, even within a marriage. Last summer, as thrill-chasers are wont to do, her husband, sometime collaborator and fellow psych department assistant professor Brian Knutson, PhD ’93, scaled Mount Rainier. Tsai deadpans, “I stayed at the bottom.” Happily, of course.

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