If you want to be an optimist, move to China

Despite a higher quality of life, Canadians are less optimistic during difficult
times than people living in China, says Li-Jun Ji, a psychology professor at
Queen’s University.

In a study funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of
Canada, Ji examined levels of optimism in both Chinese and Canadian citizens,
especially when faced with negative life events.

"Because the SARS outbreak hit both Toronto and Beijing at the same time,
we were able to test people in a real-life situation as well as with hypothetical
questions," she explains. "And we found that people from China were
consistently more optimistic than Canadians."

The reason, according to Ji, is cultural. Canadians – like other North
Americans – believe change happens in a linear fashion. Basically, we
believe life will continue along in a straight line no matter what – bad
things will get worse and good things will get better.

The Chinese philosophy, however, is based on a circular idea of change –
where everything is changing all the time and things can easily flip back and
forth from posiive to negative.

"This belief is seen everywhere in Chinese thought, myths and stories,"
says Ji. "If you believe things are changing all the time, you can remain
more hopeful in times of adversity."

And, understanding how a person’s culture affects the way they face challenges
is especially important in a multicultural country like Canada, says Ji.

"It allows people from different cultures and backgrounds to work together
and to learn from one another," she says.

In fact, Ji believes that Canadians would probably benefit from taking a more
Chinese approach to change.

"There is a strong connection in Canada between being optimistic and being
a happy, healthy person," she explains. "If more Canadians followed
the Chinese philosophy, negative events, like losing a job, wouldn’t take such
a dangerous toll on our emotional health."

To learn more about SSHRC-supported research, visit www.sshrc.ca.