If you walked down the greeting card aisle at an American store, looking for a sympathy card, you might see lots of colorful flowers and expressions of “May you find comfort” or “Love lives on.”
But in Germany, that section of the stationery store might look a little different. You’d see more black-and-white cards and expressions of “In deep sadness” or “Sharing your sorrow.”
This contrast, researchers have found, reflects an underlying difference in the emotional culture of the two countries. Whereas Americans typically want to seek out bubbly good feelings, Germans are more comfortable with melancholy and grief.
The culture we live in shapes what psychologists call “ideal affect”—our emotional goals, or the feelings we want to feel. Some cultures—like Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans—tend to place a higher emphasis on high-energy emotions like excitement, enthusiasm, and elation more than East Asian cultures—including Chinese and Japanese—typically want to feel more low-energy emotions like calm, peacefulness, and relaxation. Of course, while we’re influenced by our culture, each individual has their own unique profile of emotions they seek out and others they want to avoid.
These unconscious goals underlie our everyday experiences: the activities we choose, the people we like, the music we shuffle, the way we smile, our parenting decisions, and even how we remember the past.
“People’s ideal affect has [a significant impact] on what they do to feel good, their responses to activities and events, their physical and mental health, and their social judgments and behaviors,” writes Jeanne Tsai, a professor of psychology at Stanford University who pioneered the study of ideal affect in 2001 and has published over 30 papers on it since then. “Ideal affect plays a central role in people’s daily lives.”
The emotions we want to feel don’t just shape our everyday lives and choices; they also shape us as a society and how we think about mental health in our different cultures. The way we diagnose and treat people—how problematic we view their anger or sadness, how we design programs or therapy to help them feel “good”—are all based on assumptions about which feelings are good and which are bad, and how much of any of them is normal.
But sometimes our emotional goalposts don’t serve us well, like when a desire for constant excitement leaves us listless and bored, or if discomfort with negative feelings keeps us running from pain. Understanding what feels good to you—and maybe even adjusting your own emotional goals—could help put happiness more within reach.
What shapes emotional aspirations?
We start to learn which emotions to aspire to early on, even in the kinds of stories we hear as children. Compared to Taiwanese children’s books, bestselling books in the U.S. tend to portray kids with bigger, more excited smiles, doing more high-energy activities like jumping and running around. Children raised Buddhist may be inspired by an ideal of equanimity, more so than in Pentecostal churches that encourage dancing and singing in praise.
At home, parents may transmit their views on emotions to their children. One study found that mothers have similar emotional goals for themselves and their children, and that’s related to how they parent. The more excited mothers want to feel, the more they encourage kids to celebrate positive events like getting a good grade or an invitation to a birthday party. People who value relaxation are more likely to soothe babies and play calmly with them, while American mothers lean toward stimulating babies with chatter and movement.
Even the expressions we see on the faces around us may be a reflection of our culture’s emotional ideals. When a country favors excitement and enthusiasm, government leaders, CEOs, and university presidents smile more widely—with more teeth showing—in their official photos. In countries that value serenity more, leaders’ smiles tend to be more closed and calm.
“You get messages all the time from the larger culture about how you should want to feel,” explains Tsai.
How goals shape thoughts and behavior
By the time we’re adults, we have developed habits that help us feel what we want to feel and avoid feeling what we don’t. For example, if we’re very averse to negative feelings, write Birgit Koopmann-Holm and Tsai in a 2014 paper, we might do things like avoid unpleasant colleagues, not walk home late at night, or pass on horror movies.
Our emotional goals seem to operate in more subtle ways, too, shaping the contours of our emotional landscape. In one study, the more people preferred positive over negative emotions, the less often they experienced mixed emotions over the course of a week. Chinese people living in Hong Kong and Beijing had more mixed emotions compared to European and Chinese Americans.
When we look back on the past, it’s partly through the lens of our ideal feelings. In one study, researchers pinged students seven times a day to report how they were feeling and then, at the end of the week, asked them to recall their positive emotions from that week. Their memories weren’t completely inaccurate, but they were tinged by how much positive emotion people wanted to feel.
“A culture that values happiness might remember happiness more so than another culture that places less value on happiness,” write Christie Napa Scollon and her coauthors in the 2009 paper.
They speculate that our desired emotions may fill in gaps when we can’t remember how we felt, but they may also affect which emotions we pay attention to, which ones we encode in our memories, and how easy they are to access in our brains. And how we remember emotions is important, because it influences our future choices.
Finally, our emotional goals are shaped by our values, too. At least that’s what researchers found when they surveyed over 2,300 people in eight different countries, including the U.S., China, Brazil, Germany, and Israel. For example, people who valued connecting and benevolence wanted to feel more empathy and compassion; people who valued self-interest and power wanted to feel more anger and pride; people who valued novelty and exploration wanted to feel more interest and excitement; and people who valued security and tradition wanted to feel more calm and less fear.
Healthy emotional goals
Does this mean that certain emotional goals are healthy and others aren’t, and we should adjust ours accordingly?
Not exactly. The most consistent findings show that it’s the gap that matters—the difference between how you want to feel and how you actually feel. In that study of more than 2,300 university students, young people in nearly every country were more depressed and less satisfied with life when these discrepancies were larger.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, students in another study who were feeling more low-energy negative emotions (like dull, sleepy, and sluggish) than they wanted to feel were more depressed, while those who felt too many high-energy negative emotions (like fearful, hostile, and nervous) were both more depressed and anxious.
In fact, getting ideal amounts of calming, peaceful feelings could be important for health. Researchers at Stanford University surveyed 136 people ages 18 to 93 about their emotional goals, and then checked in with them five times a day over the course of a week to see how they were actually feeling. The more they fell short of their ideal levels of calm in life, the worse their health was. They tended to experience more symptoms like stomach troubles, painful joints, headaches, and fatigue.
“People likely differ in their optimal level of affect and the amount of times that they need to rest physically and mentally, and accomplishing the needed amount of rest is important,” write Susanne Scheibe and her coauthors.
Aside from paying attention to these gaps between our emotional goals and realities, our desire for high-energy happiness seems to have the strongest implications for well-being—but even there, the findings are mixed.
When researchers at UC Berkeley surveyed nearly 300 students, they found that people who pursued excited feelings tended to feel more anxious and drink too much. Drinking, after all, might seem like a shortcut to raucous good feelings. At the same time, however, those students were actually less depressed—perhaps because wanting to feel excited also motivated them to do helpful things to lift their moods.
In fact, it’s possible that wanting to feel excitement and enthusiasm may motivate us to regulate our emotions in healthy ways. For example, one study asked 119 adults about how good they were at savoring and what kinds of strategies they would use to savor—ways of tuning into and amplifying positive feelings, like going out to celebrate a special event, rewarding yourself with a gift, being affectionate, or sharing happiness with others. The researchers found that the more people wanted to feel excited feelings, the more savoring habits they had and the better they thought they were at it.
In another study, the more American and Hong Kong students wanted to feel excited feelings, the more often they practiced reappraisal—an emotion regulation strategy where we reframe a difficult situation in a more positive way. So wanting to feel excitement may motivate us to seek out happy experiences or find ways to see the good in where we’re at, and then really absorb those pleasant feelings when we have them.
But pursuing exuberant positive feelings may have its downsides, too. Valuing extreme levels of happiness tends to go along with feeling depressed. And when our goal is to be energetic and enthusiastic all the time, getting older looks worse and worse.
“Happiness involves experiencing emotions that feel right”
Researchers asked 267 people across the U.S. and Hong Kong about their views on old age—including what they were looking forward to and what they dreaded. Ultimately, the more people wanted to feel high-energy happiness, the less rosy old age looked to them.
This is a problem, because people with a positive view of aging tend to have better health and live longer. In other words, the way we want to feel may color our stereotypes about old age—which, by influencing our health, could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Achieving your emotional goals
With all these complications in mind, how can you ensure that your emotional goals are serving you well and that you’re able to achieve them?
Start with simply listening to yourself. “Happiness involves experiencing emotions that feel right,” write Hebrew University’s Maya Tamir and her coauthors in a 2017 paper. How do you feel at the moment? Does the feeling match the moment? If it doesn’t, what activities might help change the channel?
Pause to think about your desired feelings when you make decisions, since research suggests that we enjoy activities more when they match our emotional goals. For example, people who want to feel more calm might go for a walk rather than a run, or choose the ferris wheel rather than the roller coaster. Instead of being pressured to go out partying, you might be content to read a book, listen to music, or sit on the beach.
Beyond that, especially for North Americans, you might want to invest energy in appreciating the peaceful side of life. That’s because it seems to be easier for us to achieve our ideal levels of calm on a daily basis; elation is harder to come by. “Diversify your happiness portfolio by including different forms of happiness,” suggests Tsai. “It’s good to have a definition of happiness that includes both excitement and calm.”
In fact, researchers found some evidence that Americans have gradually increased how much they value serene feelings over time, since the shock and distress of 9/11 and other world events, including the COVID-19 pandemic.
One way to deliberately change your views on calm is to spend some time practicing mindfulness. After an eight-week class, students in the Bay Area became more interested in calm and relaxation compared to those who took a compassion meditation or improv class. “As people meditate, they may begin to desire or want more calm in their daily lives,” write Koopmann-Holm and her coauthors in the 2013 study. “They may consciously or unconsciously begin to engage in more soothing activities and go to more relaxing places.”
There are other ways to trick your brain into seeking calm. In another study, when Chinese people in Hong Kong imagined they were moving in two weeks, they desired more calm and made more calm-inspired choices, compared to people who imagined they would live 20 years longer than they expected (a thought experiment designed to orient you toward the future). The more we tune into the present, the more we’re drawn toward feeling at peace.
It’s always a good bet to build up your tolerance for negative emotions, which could help buffer the strain on your happiness and health when life gets difficult. Plus, experiencing a variety of emotions may be good for our mental health, and certain mixed emotions—like longing and nostalgia—have particular benefits.
A simple way to get more comfortable with difficult emotions is to journal about a meaningful experience in your life—a time when it was important for you to focus on feeling bad and ignore feeling good, like fixing your mistakes or sitting with a sad friend. In one study, this exercise helped people achieve more balance in their desires for positive and negative emotions.
“Valuing negative states makes actually feeling them easier,” says Tsai. “In those contexts, actually feeling negative emotion doesn’t pack as bad of a punch because you accept negative emotions and you see the utility of them.”
Along the same lines, Tsai urges a bit of self-compassion when we don’t live up to our emotional ideals. “Most people aren’t feeling how they ideally want to feel all the time, so there’s nothing wrong with you if you’re not always feeling how you ideally want to feel,” she says.
By understanding the full spectrum of emotional experiences across cultures, we might be able to open up our minds to different ways of being and feeling—and feel happier ourselves in the process.