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The role of familiarity in daily well-being

April 19, 2012

In a study which “examined life stage and cultural differences in the degree to which familiarity of one’s physical location and interaction partner is associated with daily well-being” (1750) (looking at Korean and American groups), a number of interesting statements are made about the cultural impact on well-being with regards to the role of familiarity.

In their introduction, the authors state: “That familiarity leads to liking is one of the most widely replicated phenomena in psychological science. In general, people feel more positive affect when they see familiar stimuli relative to unfamiliar stimuli. In daily social interactions, people are generally happier when in the presence of familiar others than when alone or with unfamiliar others. However, increased familiarity might not necessarily result in greater positive affect, as people often experience the most intense negative emotion while interacting with familiar others such as spouses and parents. Thus, the relation between familiarity and well-being appears to be complex and possibly curvilinear. In the present work, we examined the role of familiarity in daily well-being from both cultural and developmental perspectives.” (1750)

They also comment that while “the extant evidence certainly suggests that the positive mere exposure effect is pervasive, if not universal” (1750), “past experience sampling studies have provided suggestive evidence pointing toward cultural variations in the role of familiar persons on daily well-being.” (1750) Oishi et al, they continue “found that the mood-enhancing effect of being with a romantic partner and a friend was stronger among Japanese than Americans. Although these studies did not measure the degree of familiarity, Oishi et al. speculated that in a society where people draw a sharp distinction between ingroup and outgroup (e.g., Japan), the joy of being with a familiar interaction partner is more intense than in a society where people do not draw such a sharp distinction (e.g., the United States; Antonucci [etc…]).

In terms of developmental differences, socioemotional selectivity theory suggests that retirees, who perceive having only a limited amount of time left in their lives, often seek out and derive enjoyment from familiar social partners (e.g., family and close friends), whereas younger adults prefer to pursue novelty and excitement (Antonucci [etc. …]). Together, these findings suggest that retirees will feel happier in a familiar situation than in an unfamiliar situation.

We conduted the present study to test the role of familiarity in daily well-being. We examined two types of familiarity: familiarity of the interaction partner and familiarity of the location.” (1750) “In other words,” they continue, “we explored how people’s well-being might change as a function of the individuals with whom they are interacting and the location in which their activities are taking place.” (1750-1751)

They found that, in contrast to the American participants in the study, “Korean working adults felt progressively less negative as the familiarity of the interaction partner increased, whereas Korean retirees felt less negative affect while interacting with an unfamiliar person than a familiar person. This could be due to the fact that strangers typically treat the elderly in Korea with respect. Finally, there were no other gender or cultural differences in the within-person association between familiarity of the location and the interaction partner and negative affect.” (1753)

“As predicted,” the authors conclude, “familiarity of the interaction partner played a much larger, positive role in Koreans’ daily happiness than in Americans’ daily happiness. This could be partly explained by cultural differences in the preference of high arousal positive versus low arousal positive experiences (Tsai, Knutson, & Fung, 2006). Koreans might prefer less emotionally stimulating experiences (e.g., interacting with a familiar person) than Americans. This explanation should be explicitly examined in the future.” (1753) “Retirees, they continue, “regardless of cultural background, reported more positive affect when in a familiar location than in an unfamiliar location, whereas there was no such association among working adults. This was not due to working adults spending more time at work. As suggested by Smith, Fleeson, Geiselmann, Settersten and Kunzmann (1999), there might be developmental shift in the source of happiness, whereby retirees really do begin to derive more enjoyment from familiar locations. It should be noted, however, that …both retirees and working adults were happier when interacting with a familiar other than interacting with an unfamiliar other.” (1753-1754)

The present findings also shed new light on the apparent paradox of familiarity. It is widely accepted that people seek out and enjoy things that tare familiar (Zajonc, 2001). However, familiarity can sometimes breed boredom (Bornstein [et al. …]). In fact, the frequently cited work on hedonic adaptation (Brickman, Coates, & Janoff-Bulman, 1978) makes a strong agumnt for the importance of novelty on happiness. According to this theory, new sources of stimulation are constantly required to maintain positive affect. The present finings, however, suggest a more nuanced and complex relationship. Although novelty is certianly attention-grabbing and exciting, familiarity often brings a feeling of comfort. As such, we found a main effect of famliarity on positive affect, where an interaction with a familiar person is more positive than one with an unfamiliar person, particularly among Koreans. People derive happiness from meaningful, enduring interpersonl relationships more than from a potenially exciting encounter with a stranger.” (1755)

“The present findings also suggest that interactions with people and interactions with physical locations produce different affective responses. Whereas people generally preferred to interact with someone familiar, younger people are happier in a novel location than in a familiar one. Because people are more dynamic and unpredictable than are physical locations, there is an inherent sense of novelty in a social interaction, even with people who are highly familiar. In short, it seems that we adapt to locations but not necessarily to people. In terms of application, there may be more to gain, affectively speaking, froms seeking out a new physical environment rather than a new interaction partner.” (1755)

[the authors continue on to discuss the limitations of their research, noting, for example, problems with distinguishing between age and retirement status in terms of impact]

Ref: (emphases in bold blue mine) Shigehiro Oishi, Jaime L. Kurtz, Felicity F. Miao, Jina Park, and Erin Whitchurch (2011) The role of familiarity in daily well-being: Developmental and cultural variation Developmental Psychology 47(6), 1750-1756

References made to:

Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978) Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 917-927

Smith, J., Fleeson, W., Geiselmann, B., Settersten R.A., Jr., and Kunzmann, U. (1999) Sources of well-being in very old age. In P.B. Baltes & K.U. Mayer (Eds.), The Berlin Aging Study: Aging from 70-100 (pp.450-471). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press

Tsai, Knutson, & Fung (2006) Cultural variation in affect valuation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 288-307

Other interesting looking references include:

Antonucci and Akiyama (1987) Social networks in adult life and a preliminary examination of the convoy model. Journal of Gerontology 42, 519-527

Antonucci et al. (2001) Widowhood and illness: A comparison of social network characteristics in France, Germany, Japan and the United States, Psychology and Aging, 16, 655-665

Chung, GH, Flook and Fuligni (2009) Daily family conflict and emotional distress among adolescents from Latin American, Asian, and European backgrounds. Developmental Psychology, 45, 1406-1415

Csikszentmihalyi, M and Hunter, J (2003) Happiness in everyday life: the use of experience sampling. Journal of Happiness Studies 4, 185-199

Diener, E et al (2003) Personality, culture, and subjective well-being: Emotional and cognitive evaluations of life. Annual Review of Psychology, 54, 403-425

Ebner, NC et al (2006) Developmental changes in personal goal orientation from young to late adulthood: from striving for gains to maintenance and prevention of losses. Psychology and Aging, 21, 664-678

Mroczek, DK et al (1998) The effect of age on positive and negative affect: A developmental perspective on happiness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75 1333-1349

Siedlecki, KL et al (2008) Life satisfaction across adulthood: Different determinants at different ages? Journal of Positive Psychology, 3 153-164

Wheeler, L et al (1989) Collectivism-individualism in everyday social life: The Middle Kingdom and the melting pot. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57, 79-86

Zajonc, RB (2001) Mere exposure: A gateway to subliminal. Current Directions in Psychological Science 10, 224-228


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