Anthony Ong describes connections between positive emotions, health, and how people experience their own racial and ethnic identities. (Illustration Credit: miakievy; Lidiia Moor; E. Nelson)

Sustaining Happiness

Cornell Research and Innovation


by Jackie Swift

Increasingly, studies have shown that happiness can translate into health benefits. Positive emotions such as joy and contentment have been linked to lower blood pressure, reduced risk for heart disease, and a longer life span. But happiness isn’t the same for everyone.

“We know that high levels of positive emotions are beneficial to your health and wellbeing,” says Anthony D. Ong, Psychology/Gerontology in Medicine at Cornell University. “But we don’t know whether the variability, the fluctuations, you might see in someone’s positive emotions over time matter.”

Anthony Ong, Psychology/Gerontology in Medicine, Cornell University

Two coworkers might both feel happy after achieving a major goal. But one might feel happy for a short time, with many more ups and downs in happiness as the day unfolds; while the second might experience a moderate level of happiness that doesn’t vary much throughout the day.

“Fluctuation can be thought of as a marker of emotion regulation. If you’re able to regulate your emotions effectively, then those emotions should be quite stable,” Ong says.

Positive Emotion Variability

To measure the health impacts of positive emotion variability, Ong set up a research study together with colleagues from the Human Health Labs, a research collaboratory that Ong directs. They wanted to explore whether fluctuations in positive emotions affect how well people sleep.

“We found that the greater a person’s fluctuation in positive emotions, the poorer their sleep quality,” Ong says. This finding held true regardless of how variable a person’s negative emotions were or how much positive emotion they were feeling, he explains. Sleep quality appears to be linked to the degree of ups-and-downs in positive emotions that people experience during the day.

In another study, Ong and his colleagues looked at the health effects of positive emotion reactivity: how strongly a person’s positive emotions increase when they are having a good day and decrease when they are having a bad one. The researchers found that those whose positive emotions go down sharply when they experience a stressful day have a statistically significant greater chance of dying.

This outcome is independent of how much the person’s experience of negative emotions like sadness or anger goes up when they experience that same stressful day, Ong explains. “It is also independent of other things you might think influence mortality, like health behaviors such as smoking or lack of exercise,” he says. “This difficulty in sustaining positive emotions when having a bad day is predictive of poor health.”

These studies have given Ong a new way of thinking of wellbeing in general, he says. “It’s more than just having lots of positive emotions and fewer negative ones, for example,” he says. “In the case of positive emotions, it’s less to do with how much you have and more to do with how stable your emotions are and whether they are staked on external events. Maybe we shouldn’t think of our happiness as being so contingent on the events that we experience from day to day.”

Ethnic-Racial Affect

Over and over again, Ong and his colleagues at the Human Health Labs find themselves returning to certain crucial factors in connection with human health: emotion, aging, relationships, race, and class. Research in one lab often spills over into another.

“In the case of positive emotions, it’s less to do with how much you have and more to do with how stable your emotions are and whether they are staked on external events.”

Ong is currently examining the benefits of positive ethnic-racial affect — that is, how positively a person feels about their ethnicity and race. In one study focused on ethnic and racial minority youth, Ong and his colleagues asked participants to rate how strongly they felt emotions such as happiness, pride, and hopefulness when they thought about their race and ethnicity.

“We know from other studies that people who report more positive ethnic-racial affect are also more satisfied with their lives,” Ong says. “But here again, variability it important. Greater variability in positive ethnic-racial affect is associated with poor life satisfaction and poor wellbeing.”

The researchers are unsure why people might report great variability in their experience of positive ethnic-racial emotions, but they suspect it has to do with context, Ong explains. For instance, a person may feel happy and proud of their ethnic background while sharing a traditional meal with their family; while at work, however, they may feel uncomfortable about that same background when coworkers make assumptions about them based on it.

Racial Uplifts

The bonding that can come from sharing traditional food with others from your ethnic-racial background is an example of what Ong calls “a racial uplift.” Typically, racial uplift signifies an ideology, dating to the late nineteenth century, that places responsibility for the collective social advancement of African Americans on an educated African American elite, and to varying degrees emphasizes self-improvement as a means of achieving racial equality. Ong means something different. For him, a racial uplift is an event that makes a person feel good when thinking about their racial-ethnic group.

“Our conceptualization and use of the term ‘racial uplifts’ is based on research on daily life events, wherein ‘uplifts’ are defined as positive experiences that are likely to occur in everyday life,” Ong says. “This definition differs markedly from the concept of racial uplift that underscores ‘self-help,’ which has been criticized for being closely aligned with pro-White, anti-Black racial resentment.”

Ong is Vietnamese American, and through his work he has identified a variety of racial uplifts specific to Asian Americans. “Racial uplift is going to mean different things depending on what group you’re talking about,” Ong says. Among Asian Americans, Ong has found that racial uplifts can include racial bonding (when people share cultural experiences specific to their group, such as food or music), bicultural competence (how easily a person can navigate different cultural contexts, such as speaking Chinese at home and English at work), and outgroup regard (the extent to which mainstream society depicts and/or regards a person’s racial group favorably).

Making Room for the Positive

By introducing the concept of racial uplift and helping to define some themes that apply to Asian Americans, Ong hopes to encourage more research into the idea. “The science of wellbeing is really devoid of attention to issues that have to do with race and ethnicity,” he says. “And most of the work on ethnic and racial identity has not been connected to questions about racial flourishing.

“What does it mean to have positive racial encounters and exposures that come from being Asian American?” he continues. “How do we probe the emotional depths of positive connectivity with Asian culture in the context of daily life? What are the everyday moments of profound intimacy and closeness across interracial boundaries that convey health-promoting effects? My hope is that there will be more room for the positive and that other researchers will study this in the context of other ethnic-racial groups.”

Ong mentions Pulitzer Prize–winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, who first put forth the idea of what Nguyen calls narrative plenitude — the need for more and richer portrayals of Asian Americans and other minorities in mainstream culture. “A similar revolution in thinking will happen in the behavioral sciences,” Ong says. “It’s only a matter of time.”

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Cornell Research and Innovation

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