A recent EurekAlert article describes some work that examined the effect of positive and negative emotions on a person’s level of adherence to typical cultural values. The study looked at Asians and Europeans; each culture, broadly speaking, has a different attitude toward individuality versus fitting into the group, and these attitudes were examined in individual participants. Then the researchers manipulated the moods of the participants, cheering some up and lowering others slightly into the dumps. The jazzed or bummed participants then were given some things to do that were designed to reveal the degree to which they acted in accordance with their attitudes. The happier ones were more likely to behave in ways that were off their own personal beaten path (Europeans taking more of a group view, Asians acting more independently), indicating that being in a more cheerful frame of mind might predispose people to be more exploratory and open to different ways of being. Mild misery had the opposite effect, reinforcing existing attitudes and behaviors.
It’s a fascinating look into how fluctuations in mood can change something that on the face of it might seem fairly set. Identity is not a static thing. (Incidentally, it’s also a nice story for those of us who like to answer questions about personality—or other topics—with “It depends.”)
(The full article is in the March 2009 issue of Psychological Science: Who I Am Depends on How I Feel: The Role of Affect in the Expression of Culture, Claire E. Ashton-James, William W. Maddux, Adam D. Galinsky, and Tanya L. Chartrand. Psychological Science 20:3, 340-346.)
Of course, the down side of the contingent nature of our behavior is that, as we already know, anxious, fearful people are not always at their best. Maybe that’s why it’s important to keep finding something to laugh at or otherwise feel good about even in trying circumstances. Coincidentally, I also happened across this article from the Association for Psychological Science about the value of positive emotions. The article describes the “broaden and build” model of psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, who has a new book out on the benefits of positivity. The idea is that contentment, playfulness, and serenity appear to help open up the mind to novel ideas (as with the recent experiment into cultural stereotypes), and over time, such moments of broadening add up to a greater sense of purpose, better social connections, and other beneficial outcomes. The article opens with a wonderful anecdote about patas monkeys, who in their youth chase each other around and, in the process, throw themselves onto flexible young trees, which bend and then fling them off in another direction. The monkeys drop this kind of horseplay as they get older, except when they’re being chased by a predator, when they will use a sapling as a slingshot to try to escape death. Evidently those monkeys look like they’re goofing off while they’re actually learning a survival skill.
One of the most endearing things about humans and other animals, it seems to me, is the sense of play, of spontaneous joy in some goofy activity or another, preferably shared. If there’s some cumulative long-term benefit, so much the better. I’m glad psychologists are looking into this kind of thing, and I’m also glad that thinkers before this have examined the question. Edward Abbey, for example, in Desert Solitaire, had this to say about the croaking of frogs in a brief wet spell in the desert:
“Why do they sing? What do they have to sing about? Somewhat apart from one another, separated by roughly equal distances, facing outward from the water, they clank and croak all through the night with tireless perseverance. To human ears their music has a bleak, dismal, tragic quality, dirgelike rather than jubilant. It may nevertheless be the case that these small beings are singing not only to claim their stake in the pond, not only to attract a mate, but also out of spontaneous love and joy, a contrapuntal choral celebration of the coolness and wetness after weeks of desert fire, for love of their own existence, however brief it may be, and for joy in the common life.
Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect that the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless.”
I can’t do much better than leave you with the words of Cactus Ed. Right now I’m going out on my back patio to joyfully celebrate warmth and sunshine after weeks of midwest ice. (I won’t sing, though, because despite my best efforts I might sound remarkably like the frogs.)