Holistic Views Help People Live Life to the Fullest, Study Suggests

Seeing life through a holistic lens is common in Eastern cultures. When people believe there is a yin and yang, good and bad, light and dark, in every situation in life, they view various circumstances from that perspective. In this way, a negative event, such as a life-threatening illness, could be seen as an opportunity to savor every moment of existence. Being faced with mortality can cause people to shift their priorities and approach life in a way they never have before. But whether they take mortality salience (MS) as a cue to embrace or avoid life could depend on their culture of origin.

Christine Ma-Kellams of the Department of Psychology at Harvard University recently led a study to examine how culture affects life perspectives in a sample of East Asian and Western European adults. The participants completed a series of experiments that allowed them to choose engagement in enjoyable activities or neutral ones. They were also provided with the chance to use positive behaviors, such as humor and laughter, or neutral ones. Finally, the participants were given one final chance to choose positive or neutral activities in the face of MS after being primed with holistic cues.

The results revealed that the East Asian participants chose positive and enjoyable activities and behaviors far more than the European participants. Specifically, they were more likely to look at their situation from a positive perspective and were more motivated to participate in things that brought joy, such as reading or watching movies. They also responded with higher levels of humor and positivity than the European participants. However, after the Europeans were primed with holistic cues, they too demonstrated higher levels of life-affirming engagement.

These findings suggest that thinking about one’s mortality is not necessarily a bad thing. Ma-Kellams believes that when individuals view death as the yin to the yang of life, the overall effect on their life perspective is less threatening. “Consequently, thoughts about death result in greater engagement in and enjoyment of life for holistic thinkers,” she said. Future work should examine how other factors, such as spirituality and religiosity, affect life approach in the context of MS.

Ma-Kellams, Christine, and Jim Blascovich. Enjoying life in the face of death: East-West differences in responses to mortality salience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 103.5 (2012): 773-86. Print.

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  • Andreas


    November 28th, 2012 at 5:49 PM

    I try to see the good around me whenever I am faced with a bad situation.Its not easy always but yes it can be done.When things are not going right and it looks down,I try and see all the things around me that are good.So many thing I have and am blessed with that so many others do not have.It makes me appreciate my life a lot more in such a situation wherein many people focus on the negativity instead.

  • millie


    November 29th, 2012 at 12:46 AM

    well I don’t know about you but when disaster strikes,all that lies ahead looks to be dark and gloomy.how am I to pay less attention to the impending disaster or its effects and more to something that I have already relished and rejoiced over?seems like a tough ask to me!

  • lauren d

    lauren d

    November 29th, 2012 at 3:56 AM

    Although I think that it is hard for most of us, it is critical to our well being to stop viewing life through rose colored glasses only and be willing to see it for what it is.
    There will be some good with the bad. There will be life as well as death. There will be happiness as well as sorrow.
    That’s life, and the more comfortable that you are in this knowledge than I find that the happier in life you will be in general. You don’t get blindsided by the hard stuff because you have prepared for it, been aware of it, and in some sense waiting for it to balance out the other.

  • Megan


    November 29th, 2012 at 8:18 AM

    I have practiced meditation for a number of years now and find it very helpful to meditate on the yin and yang of life. If we are to truly become whole as human beings, we must accept that death will come to us all. It is natural and it is good. Only when we have accepted this phenomenon will we really appreciate everything we experience as part of our unique human condition.

  • amy h

    amy h

    November 29th, 2012 at 8:24 AM

    Choosing to look at the bright side of life really is just that: a choice! I think it is amazing that East Asians are able to look at the good in things and choose positivity over negativity. Life is not always easy in their culture, but they naturally choose to do things that are enjoyable and to see things in a positive light. We can certainly learn a lot from these people. Can you imagine what our country would be like if we choose to focus on the positive and good rather than the negative? I sure would like to find out!

  • Robert


    November 29th, 2012 at 8:25 AM

    If laughter truly is the best medicine, it sure does explain why East Asians are so healthy!

  • patricia m

    patricia m

    November 29th, 2012 at 8:30 AM

    Sometimes I just don’t have the energy for the positive thinking. Isn’t it okay to just curl up in bed and watch movies and just be sad every once in awhile? What happened to being authentic? If I don’t feel like putting on the happy face but I force myself to, I just end up feeling worse later. Of course, I haven’t the first clue what MS is, so maybe that’s where I should start. Any ideas on that one?

  • cindy


    November 29th, 2012 at 12:25 PM

    patricia m:its not about not being authentic or about not acknowledging your feelings,but more about looking around you.if there is a problem that you face and are sad about it,we often make ourselves blind to all the good things.is that a good thing?I think not.

    what’s needed is to take a stock of all the good things.the difficulty will seem much smaller then.yes,we cannot avoid sadness altogether but knowing there is so much going your way and only a minor bump makes life much easier.



    November 29th, 2012 at 3:39 PM

    For me its never been easy to reflect on the positives during a negative situation.It almost feels the negative situation has clouded my mind and disabled any positive feelings.I feel so down in the dumps when this happens and even with effort I am unable to think of positives.Anybody else connects with this?If so,what is the solution to this?

  • Isabela


    November 30th, 2012 at 6:51 AM

    I was thinking about this after reading the article yesterday and here’s my thoughts for you:

    When there is a tough situation on hand we just think of the bad, we do not reflect on the good. It is mainly because we have not been taught to think of the good when there is a bad situation! Think about it. When we are little and take a fall, we only think about the pain, we do not think about how lucky we are to have legs and the ability to walk and run, something so many people do not have!

    Likewise, when in a happy situation, we are only thinking of that. We do not look back at the tough times. I am not suggesting spoiling you happy mood but in fact, reflecting back on situations where you have struggled and things didn’t quite go your way actually makes your happiness much more amplified and much sweeter.

    I definitely strive to see the yin and yang in every situation and I hope all of you do the same. it helps us grow as an individual, it helps us cope with pain and loss, and it helps us enjoy our happy times so much better. there is nothing to lose and a lot to gain!

  • Dawson


    November 30th, 2012 at 6:01 PM

    Not easy to get away from something undesirable when your in the middle of the situation,,when something is troubling me why would I be happy or even neutral?my focus should be on getting rid of the problem right,,?!

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