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“When you do things from your soul,” writes Rumi, “you feel a river moving in you, a joy.” The river may be boisterous, with frothy waters surging fervently through its receding banks, shouting at the world rushing by: JOY! JOY! JOY! Or, it may be quiet - with pebbles glistening beneath the clear stream and a breeze that rustles the young birches with whispers of delight.


The spectrum of positive emotions is vast and far-reaching, ranging between high arousal (e.g. elation and excitement) and low arousal (e.g. relaxation and serenity) states. 

Marianna Pogosyan
Source: Marianna Pogosyan

Figure 1.  Arousal levels in the domain of positive affect (adapted from Tsai et al., 2006).

To feel good can carry different meanings for different people. For some, it’s attending rock concerts; for others it’s meditating. How much of our affective preferences and experiences are shaped by our biological predispositions and how much of them are a result of our cultural backgrounds? According to the Affect Valuation Theory, the way we feel (actual affect) and the way we would ideally like to feel (ideal affect) are distinct constructs. While temperament (e.g., neuroticism, extraversion) has a lot to do with the way we actually feel, our cultures play an important role in shaping our ideal affective states, or the way we want to feel. As both actual and ideal affect are vital for mental health outcomes, a closer look at ideal affect offers insights into the complexities of our emotional worlds, our preferences and behaviors.

What is ideal affect?

Ideal affect refers to the desired emotional states that we strive to attain, whether consciously or unconsciously. As a motivational goal, it is often used as a reference point in comparison with how we are actually feeling. Ideal affect encompasses aspects of affective norms, including feelings that people think they should feel. Why is ideal affect important? Here are 5 reasons:

1. Ideal affect drives behavior

Research has shown that whether consciously or not, people tend to choose behaviors and interactions that are more likely to make them feel how they ideally wish to feel. Moreover, people may direct their attention onto those aspects of their circumstances that are aligned with their ideal affect. For example, when wishing to maximize positive states, we may focus our attention on our achievements and avoid thinking about negative experiences.

2. Ideal affect influences affective focus and emotion regulation techniques

People appear to modulate their emotional experiences to match their ideal affective states. For example, when people believe that negative emotions could be instrumental for achieving results in certain situations, they are more motivated to amplify those emotions (e.g., increasing anger during confrontations; expressing sadness when eliciting help). Conversely, people may also down-regulate their negative emotions, for instance after receiving a bad grade. Thus, as part of their mood-regulating techniques, people are able to “dampen” and “savor” various affective states, depending on their motivational value in given situations.

3. Ideal affect influences preferences

Research shows that we are likely to base our preferences for various consumer products to match our ideal affect. From deodorants to leisure activities to the type of music we prefer, we choose activities and products that are in line with how we would like to feel (for review, see Tsai et al, 2015).

4. Ideal affect plays a role in our perceptions of others

Often, we form impressions and make inferences about others based on their facial cues. In fact, a recent study showed that when we evaluate others, whether consciously or unconsciously, we look at how well their affective expressions match our own ideal affect. The greater the match, the more positive our impressions of others will be. For instance, we might have a good feeling about them or find them friendlier depending on what kind of smiles they have (excited vs. calm) and how much they match with the kind of states (HAP vs. LAP) that we value.

5. Ideal affect influences decision-making (e.g. when choosing a physician)

Perceiving people as trustworthy appears to depend on the emotions they express, and importantly, on how highly we value those affective states. Thus, people are more likely to choose physicians whose affective expressions match their own ideal affect. Moreover, research shows that patients are likely to respond more positively to physicians (i.e., by following their recommendations) if the physicians focus on the patients’ ideal affect.

Culture’s imprint on ideal affect

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A series of studies have pointed at cross-cultural differences in ideal affect. For instance, European Americans have been shown to value HAP emotions significantly more than Hong Kong Chinese respondents, whose ideal states fall more in the LAP spectrum. Moreover, an analysis of brain activity of participants across cultures has shown that people find it rewarding and relevant to look at facial expressions (excited vs. calm) that are valued by their cultures.

So, what is the mechanism behind culture’s influence on people’s desired emotions?

When culture affects our values, norms and moral convictions, it leaves an imprint on our emotional worlds. Whether implicitly or explicitly, various “historically derived and socially transmitted” (Tsai, 2007, p. 244) factors influence our affective and behavioral patterns through beliefs, rituals, media (e.g., advertising) and even children’s storybooks. As a result, we learn to value the affective states that are continuously endorsed by our cultures. These preferences were also reflected in a recent study that analyzed the way leaders of different countries smiled on official photographs. The study found that the leaders’ smiles tended to mirror the affective states valued by their cultures.

Bridging the gap between actual and ideal affect

If the emotions that we are feeling in our everyday lives are not aligned with how we ideally wish to feel, what effect does this discrepancy have on our wellbeing? According to one study, the greater the discrepancy between the way people felt and their culturally valued ideal affect, the more depressed they were. However, according to Dr. Jeanne Tsai from Stanford University, one of the leading researchers on ideal affect, “the discrepancies are mainly problematic when they exist for extended periods of time” and in fact, “discrepancies should motivate people to improve their well-being.”

How can we bridge the gap between our actual and ideal affect?

By broadening the range of our ideal affective states, to include a variety of positive emotions - both high arousal and low arousal, suggests Dr. Tsai. This way, we can maximize our chances of meeting our affective goals. For instance, it is much easier to reach calming states (e.g., spending time with friends) than elated states (e.g., winning a competition). Moreover, when our ideals are so unrealistic that they result in unhealthy consequences, it may be useful to adjust them to be more achievable, for instance, by bringing them closer to our actual affect.

In the end, our desired states can become roadmaps to our wellbeing. They can tell us where we are and where we want to be. They can bring awareness to our intentions and to our seemingly unconscious preferences. Yet, as we move through our days, striving to bring our realities and our ideals closer to each other, perhaps it’s worthwhile to keep in mind the words of Socrates: “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”


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