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Tuesday, 9 June 2009

The calm of happiness in Taiwan

The importance of understanding our emotions in their social and historical context is brought home by an interesting little feature in Stanford magazine on Taiwanese-American psychologist Jeanne Tsai.

In her Culture and Emotion Lab at Stanford University, she has been working on how different cultures perceive emotions and how their definitions may be different. In essence, what I perceive as happiness may not be the same as what someone from a different culture perceives as happiness. In my highly individuated culture happiness commonly contains large doses of excitement and ecstasy. A more collectivised culture such as the Taiwanese see happiness as a more calm sensation.

How can this be ascertained in a corroborated way? Tsai did studies showing two different smiley faces, one with a small calm grin and one with an excited open mouthed grin. She showed them to Taiwanese children, American Children and also Taiwanese- American children. The question posed was which of these two faces is happier?

The results of this deceptively simple test are curious but the implications are enormous.

The Taiwanese children consistently cite the calm grin as being the happier of the two, the American children cite the open mouthed grin and the Taiwanese-American children lay somewhere in the middle.

Where do these children learn about happiness that makes it so different for them?

They learn about happiness from everywhere from storybooks to magazines, to self help books and religious texts. And yet all work with a surprising cultural unity within each culture.

What is the impact of happiness being associated with calm in some cultures and with being excited in others?
One obvious riposte to this is mentioned in the article on Tsai - that of the mental health profession. If drugs like lithium and or anti-depressants flatten out the moods of bipolar and manic depressive patients - is this the most appropriate way to treat those mood swings in certain societies? Do health professionals and their pharmaceutical colleagues have to tailor their treatments and medicines to appropriate cultures?

Or will investors and marketers call it wrong if their understanding of a culture's emotions mean they pitch a product or service without taking such things into account?

Will a politician or international organisation get it wrong if they try to achieve something that is out of step with a society's emotional values? That may sound odd, but focus groups all the way back to US President Franklin D Roosevelt's use of advertising guru Edward Bernays in gauging public emotions shows how politician rely upon public emotion as much as policy arguments. Call it right and power can be yours.

Such is the importance of understanding how a culture describes its emotions and how different cultures do it all so differently. the same goes for understanding how events in history shape a nation or a culture's emotions. Fortune, fame and power can await those who do. Or maybe even just wisdom!

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