Study Reveals Power of Positive Thinking Not a Go for Asians

When I tell my grandma of a success—becoming editor of my college magazine; getting a good internship—she clucks her tongue and says, “Well, aren’t you lucky.” We’re not talking luck-of-the-Irish lucky; we’re talking Asian-lucky. I’ve accepted my grandmother’s prickliness, but until recently, I’d never attributed her reactions to her ethnicity.

I found an article detailing how two University of Washington students surveyed the emotional and stress levels of over 600 college students—Asian immigrants, Asian Americans and “European-Americans” (white people)—and found that European-Americans are less depressed when they express positive emotions. For example, in therapy, a white woman might be told that if she just thinks happy thoughts, she can lift her spirits. This culturally accepted “power of positive thinking” is less effective for Asian Americans, and for Asians, there is no emphasis at all on the relationship between positive emotion and depression. The article gives an example of a person who wins an award. The Western response to this event is excitement and joy over the positive event. But an Asian might greet the prize with happiness and, alternately, a sinking suspicion that her peers will be jealous of her.

The researchers believe this response is influenced by the Buddhist idea that happiness ultimately ends in affliction. It’s like the yin-yang symbol—this entwined balance of positive and negative in life. There is a duality to my grandmother’s responses; she is remotely pleased for me, but to her, I do not recognize nor respect that successes are short-lived. She doesn’t know that it is this black-and-white weight that drives me to carry on, to push for greater opportunities—because time is fleeting, because for every failure, there is a success, and both belong to me.

Asian and American, East and West—my yin and yang.