Most individuals in the western world would know that positive emotions determine physical wellbeing, and stress causes poor health. But just because studies have focussed on the western world, does this phenomenon not exist in the rest of the world? In developing countries, is the fulfilment of basic needs more crucial to health than “higher” needs such as positive emotions? A new study demonstrates that emotions affect health irrespective of economic status and may be more important to wellness in low-income countries.
The research report, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, is the first to study the connection between emotions and health in a sample of over 150,000 people in 142 countries. This sample for this study was not limited to the industrialised nations as previous studies were.
“We wondered whether the fact that emotions make a difference in our health is simply because we have the luxury of letting them,” said Sarah Pressman, assistant professor of psychology & social behavior and the study’s lead author. “We wanted to assess the impact of emotions on health in places where people face famine, homelessness and serious safety concerns that might be more critical correlates of wellness.”
The researchers found that the link between positive emotions [enjoyment, love, happiness] and health is stronger in countries with lesser gross domestic product. This goes against conventional wisdom that we first need to secure our basic needs to be able to achieve good health.
People in Malawi, a country that has a per capita GDP of $900, show a stronger connection between positive emotions and health than residents of the United Stated, a nation with per capita GDP of $49,800.
“A hostile American with hypertension can take blood pressure-lowering medication. A Malawian cannot,” Pressman said. “Medical interventions might lower the impact of emotions on health.”
Using data from the Gallup World Poll, researchers studied whether participants had reported experiencing enjoyment, love, happiness, worry, sadness, stress, boredom, depression or anger during the previous day. They also measured physical health and the degree to which basic needs were met.
“We hope that by showing that this phenomenon is prevalent and stronger than some factors considered critical to wellness, more attention will be drawn to the importance of studying both positive and negative emotions,” Pressman said.
She co-authored the study with Shane Lopez of the Gallup Organization and Matthew Gallagher of Boston University.