An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but will a bad mood a day bring the doctor running? Perhaps, but it may depend on what your culture thinks about bad moods.
When bad moods are as severe as clinical depression, the health effects can include heart disease and other pains, and the damage to your heart might start with much more everyday feelings of depression or anxiety. But is this an inevitable results of the physiological experience those negative emotions bring (cortisol in the blood stream, racing hearts, and so on) or is it because of how we interpret and respond to those emotions?
One group of researchers argue that Americans have a particularly unhealthy relationship with our bad moods – literally unhealthy, because that relationship damages our physical and mental health. Because Americans idealize the pursuit of happiness and the “American dream”, we may make a bad mood even worse by perceiving it as contrary to everything we are supposed to be; and because we emphasize our individual control over our own destinies and states of mind, we may take that bad mood as a problem with who we are. I’m not just unhappy today, I’m feeling completely contrary to how I’m supposed to be feeling; that’s my fault, and I can’t tell anyone else about it they’re just going to look down on me.
This attitude would be in stark contrast to the attitude that the researchers ascribe to East Asian cultures with their more Buddhist philosophy that a bad mood is just a result of the particular situation you are in, which makes it safe to seek out advice and share your feelings with friends with no fear of being judged. With that attitude, bad moods might not be as damaging because you aren’t a bad person for having them, and you may find broader social support when you have them that helps you recover.
To test whether certain cultures magnify the health costs of a negative mood, researchers administered surveys to a few thousand middle-aged adults in America and Japan. (A middle-aged sample is a very nice change from college students, particularly because college students would be expected to have more volatile emotions as their brains finish developing). These volunteers were asked about their mood in the past month: howe often they had been nervous, hopeless, irritable, frustrated, and a handful of other negative emotions. They were also asked about their physical health, in the form of chronic conditions (such as asthma and arthritis) and the limits poor health placed on their everyday activities (such as being able to carry groceries); and their mental health, in the form of overall “well-being” (including self-acceptance, having good relationships, and feeling a purpose in life) and self-esteem.
Negative emotions were bad for physical and mental health in both cultures: the more frequently people reported feeling negative emotions, the more chronic physical conditions and limits on their daily function they had, and the lower their psychological well-being and self-esteem was. However, for Americans that cost of negative mood was more extreme for all measures; most dramatically, the relationship between negative moods and chronic conditions was twice as strong in Americans than in Japanese adults. Overall, Japanese adults reported more negative emotions than Americans (a difference of about 0.2 on a scale of 1 for “none of the time” to 5 for “all of the time”) and lower psychological health, but also fewer physical health problems and limitations than Americans. The researchers interpreted this in line with their theory that American beliefs about negative moods exacerbate their physical and mental costs, and that treating bad moods as if they were natural reactions to certain situations would help “treat” them and limit their impact.
At this point, I expected the researchers to address the elephant in the room: what about the obvious alternative interpretation that physical and mental health issues are a cause of bad moods, particularly for some cultures more than others? I know several middle-aged adults with chronic health conditions who can’t chat for five minutes without injecting their latest symptoms into the conversation, and I can easily imagine that Americans are more likely to dwell on and brood about their physical health issues and feeling a lack of purpose in life, causing them to feel upset, frustrated, and otherwise negative more frequently. In contrast, a different culture that accepts any physical difficulties or dissatisfaction and tries to move on or deliberately take a more positive outlook may experience fewer negative emotions (similar to how we’ve seen that older adults deliberately try to turn away from their negative experiences and focus on the positive, ).
I am easily convinced that the relationship between bad moods and health problems could depend on what culture you belong to; but does it change because your culture is more accepting of bad moods and doesn’t see them as a personal failing, protecting your health, or because your culture doesn’t seem health problems as something that should rule your mind and influence your emotional experiences?To know that, we will need much better (not merely correlational) research, considering a variety of different cultures. For now, though, you can hedge your bets by accepting both. When you feel frustrated, angry, or any other negative emotion, try to return to a more positive frame of mind, and you may just protect your health; when you are experiencing aches, pains, or other health problems, try to put them from your mind, and you might protect your overall mood. Perhaps this way both doctors and bad moods can be kept away.
Curhan KB, Sims T, Markus HR, Kitayama S, Karasawa M, Kawakami N, Love GD, Coe CL, Miyamoto Y, & Ryff CD (2014). Just how bad negative affect is for your health depends on culture. Psychological Science, 25 (12), 2277-80 PMID: 25304884