Different from actual affect, ideal affect refers to the emotions that people desire to have (Tsai, 2007). For example, while some individuals want to feel calmness, others want to feel enthusiasm. Affect valuation theory (AVT) differentiates two types of affective experiences, namely ideal affect and actual affect (Tsai, 2007). Actual affect is shaped mainly by temperament, whereas ideal affect is shaped mainly by cultural factors.
Previous cross-cultural research (e.g., Bencharit et al., 2019) found that compared with Americans who want to feel high arousal positive (HAP) affective states (e.g., excitement), Chinese people want to feel low arousal positive (LAP) affective states (e.g., calmness).
Culture shapes ideal affect mainly through cultural exposure, cultural values, and social cultural changes. Specifically, previous research demonstrated that ideal affect, which is emphasized by culture, can be demonstrated in cultural products (e.g., storybooks). Experiencing these cultural products can therefore shape one’s ideal affect (Tsai et al., 2007). With reference to Schwartz’s (1992) basic human value system, two cultural values—namely self-enhancement (including achievement and power) and openness to change (including self-direction and stimulation)—can account for Americans’ preference for HAP, whereas conservatism (including tradition and conformity) can account for Chinese people’s preference for LAP. In addition, social cultural change, such as a significant national event (e.g., the 9/11 attack in the U.S.), can explain changes in one’s ideal affect (Tsai, 2013).
Ideal affect also has culturally diverse influences on one’s preference and choice behaviors, mixed emotional experiences, physical and mental health, and social judgment. Specifically, people tend to make choices based on their ideal affect, which is encouraged by their culture (Sims et al., 2017). Ideal affect can also explain the cultural differences in mixed emotional experiences (Sims et al., 2015). People may attain healthy mental and physical states if their own ideal affect is consistent with the ideal affect that is emphasized in their culture (Tran et al., 2017). In interpersonal interaction, people prefer social partners who display the types of emotions that match their own ideal affect (Tran et al., 2017).
Four future directions can be drawn for this line of research. First, ideal affect should be investigated from a longitudinal perspective. To further understand how culture shapes ideal affect, it is necessary to use longitudinal research methods to examine the impacts of cultural changes on ideal affect. For example, future research could explore whether changes in Chinese values would influence the types of ideal affect valued by Chinese people. Second, antecedents of ideal affect could be investigated. In addition to the shaping effect of cultural values on ideal affect, another important cultural factor, holistic-analytic cognition (Nisbett et al., 2001), may also account for the cultural variations in ideal affect. The individual-level cultural factors (e.g., gender role or social class) may explain the individual differences in ideal affect. Third, future researchers should develop the criteria for mental health assessment that is suitable for Chinese culture. Future research could further examine the roles of calmness and harmony in Chinese people’s mental health. Fourth, it is necessary to reduce cultural misunderstandings by increasing the awareness of ideal affect. If people are aware of the ideal affect that is emphasized in their culture, then adjust their daily life to match this ideal affect, they may avoid social exclusion or financial losses due to the failure in “ideal affect match”. Moreover, people could reduce their biased choices by realizing the impact of ideal affect on their social cognition judgments.