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Reporting on health and quality of life in South LA

Emotional health isn't just a 'first-world issue', matters even more in low-GDP countries


The relation between positive emotion and physical health in 142 countries. Higher values on the y-axis indicate greater positive feelings, and higher values on the x-axis indicate greater self-reported physical health. Countries represented by smaller and bluer circles have a lower gross domestic product (GDP), whereas those represented by larger and greener circles have a higher GDP.
The relation between positive emotion and physical health in 142 countries. Higher values on the y-axis indicate greater positive feelings, and higher values on the x-axis indicate greater self-reported physical health. Countries represented by smaller and bluer circles have a lower gross domestic product (GDP), whereas those represented by larger and greener circles have a higher GDP. Psychological Science/Association for Psychological Science

In the U.S., it's become clear that positive emotions – feeling good – are considered a crucial component of people's overall well-being. But does the emotion-health relationship only hold in wealthy, industrialized countries?

In other words, do people living in poorer countries have more important things to worry about – basic needs like food, shelter, a lack of health care access – than their emotional health?

A new study appearing in Psychological Science says "no" – and adds that emotional health may be even more important to well-being in low-income countries than it is in the States:

Emotions matter to health everywhere … against our expectations, results indicated that the emotion-health connection is not a first-world issue, and that the link between [positive emotions] and health is in fact strong in countries with weaker [gross domestic products].

The study's exact findings: The link between emotions (both positive and negative) and health is stronger in countries with a weaker gross domestic product (GDP) – so much so that the correlation becomes stronger as the GDP becomes weaker.

Take the U.S. and Peru, for example. According to the study's numbers the U.S. GDP per capita – that is, the country's total wealth divided by the number of people in its population – is about $42,000. In Peru, the GDP per capita is just over $6,000. But the correlation of emotional health to overall health is markedly stronger in Peru.

The same goes for Malawi, an African country where the GDP per capita isn't even $700, and Sierra Leone, the GDP per capita of which barely breaks $800.

Why?

That may be, at least in part, because medical intervention is less likely to impact people's health in poorer countries, said Sarah Pressman, the study's lead author and a professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine. That leaves more room for emotions – both positive and negative – to have an effect.

"One of the ways that we think emotion impacts your health is by altering the body physiologically," she said.

Stress, for example, can lead to high blood pressure. Someone from the U.S. can get blood pressure-lowering medication, explained Pressman, but someone from Malawi probably can't. In that way, the way the Malawian's emotions affect her or his health are unhampered, because there's no medication getting in the way. As for the person who takes the medication?

"You're going to break that emotion-health link," said Pressman.

Of course, GDP per capita doesn't paint an entirely accurate picture of prosperity when it comes to individual lives. Despite their country's enormous wealth, more than 46 million Americans still lived in poverty in 2011. In L.A. City Council District 9, in South Los Angeles, the average yearly household income is just $12,000.

Which brings up an interesting question: Could the findings of Pressman's study apply not only to residents of countries with a weak GDP, but to chronically under-served areas like South Los Angeles?

"It's definitely possible," said Pressman. "Some of the same issues could be present for people who are struggling to make ends meet, who can't afford to go to the doctor, who don't have the time to go to the doctor.

"The ability for emotion to impact health might be stronger [in those places] because there is less medical intervention," she added, noting that more research that actually involved residents from those areas would be necessary to draw a conclusion.

Pressman said that the study used GDPs from 2005.

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