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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

How do we promote wellbeing at a societal level when one person's best day is another person's nightmare?

Research suggests low-arousal emotions such as serenity and calmness are preferable to high-arousal emotions like happiness and excitement

A hotel with its exterior featuring Chinese deities Fu, Lu and Shou, which symbolise happiness, prosperity and longevity, in Langfang, Hebei province / Reuters
A hotel with its exterior featuring Chinese deities Fu, Lu and Shou, which symbolise happiness, prosperity and longevity, in Langfang, Hebei province / Reuters

From his pulpit of perpetual happiness, the wellbeing preacher urges his audience to surround themselves with positive people. “Don’t listen to your haters, just follow your dreams,” he intonates. His advice is well-meant but at best it is meaningless, at worst, dangerous.

Happiness or subjective wellbeing, as psychologists might call it, is, as the term implies, subjective; one person’s best day ever is another person’s worst nightmare. Even how positive we feel about the emotion happiness varies from culture to culture. Research suggests that in some eastern, collectivist societies, low-arousal emotions such as serenity and calmness are preferable to relatively high-arousal emotions like happiness and excitement.

One study compared the emotions expressed by fictional characters depicted in Taiwanese and US graphical novels and illustrated storybooks. The characters in the Taiwanese books expressed low-arousal emotions such as serenity and contentment far more frequently than their US counterparts while the characters in the US books were far more likely to be drawn displaying high-arousal emotions such as happiness and excitement.

Even among pre-schoolers, these emotion-related cultural differences can be observed. Several studies have looked at children’s earliest drawings, the ones where people are depicted with blob-like bodies and stick-like limbs. Such research invariably finds that children from western, individualist societies draw smiling faces on their blob people more frequently than do their collectivist counterparts.

Despite these cross-cultural differences in affective preference (which emotions we value most), the smiley has become the global emblem of the wellbeing movement. The iconic yellow circle with a smiling mouth and black dots for eyes was designed by the American commercial artist Harvey Ball in 1963. But perhaps the wellbeing movement in collectivist societies would be better served by an emblem that communicated serenity and contentment rather than happiness?

Beyond the relatively superficial issues of “affective preference”, there are more significant factors to consider. Might the wellbeing movement inadvertently be promoting individualist values, perhaps at the expense of collectivist ones? Chase your dreams, be your best self, never give up on what you want, believe in yourself and so on. Our current wellbeing focus seems overly individualistic; at times, it might be described as self-absorbed and perhaps even narcissistic.

The idea of an individualistic pursuit of happiness can occasionally be at odds with the collectivistic quest for harmony. Such a clash can become a problem, especially since other people we have relationships with are a vital ingredient in the recipe for human wellbeing. Love, service and belonging all typically require a "we" rather than an "I" orientation.

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The UAE has been quick to embrace the subjective wellbeing/ happiness agenda, which, in a broader sense, means considering all emotions and the related concept of motivation. Many of the world’s present and future challenges are intimately bound up with human emotion, behaviour and motivation. A population that can relate well to emotions, remain resilient and act wisely is a force for good.

The challenge, however, is how do we promote such wellbeing at a societal level? This task is a relatively new focus for science and for most of its history, psychology has primarily been concerned with fixing illness rather than promoting wellbeing.

This shift in focus has opened the door for exciting new fields such as positive neuropsychology and professions like life coaching to emerge and blossom. Unfortunately, alongside these legitimate contributors, there are also a tiny minority of poorly regulated, self-appointed, “wellbeing gurus”. Some of the advice spewed by the worst of these straddles the porous border between ridiculous and dangerous.

Charlatans aside, however, there is a strong scientific evidence base for much of the advice and practice aimed at promoting wellbeing. Mindfulness-based stress reduction, for example, is supported by scores of well-designed, randomised controlled trials all attesting its effectiveness.

We need to move slowly with the wellbeing agenda, not trying to outpace the research findings. We also need to be careful when applying psychological ideas across cultures. A broken leg is a broken leg in any language but broken hearts can be very different.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University