The central purpose of the current study was to test hypothesized models of positive and negative affect in a multiethnic undergraduate sample of students in Canada using theoretically guided psychosocial and cultural variables as predictors. As such, the study is among the first to empirically examine the critical relationships among stress, social support, bidirectional acculturation, religious cooing, cultural coping, positive affect and negative affect simultaneously through regression analyses. A number of key findings have been revealed in this research and are reviewed below.
Hypothesis 1 was supported by the results of the regression analysis as the overall proposed predictive model of positive affect was found to be statistically significant. The eight psychosocial, acculturation and coping variables collectively accounted for 61% of the variance in positive affect, indicating a large effect size (Cohen 1988). Hence, the results suggest that the quality of positive emotions experienced by the undergraduate participants, which included the feelings of interest, excitement, strength, pride, alertness, inspiration, etc., were related to their perception of their stress level, degree of social support, cultural orientation/identification as well as the kind of coping strategies they used to deal with academic stressors, such as having academic difficulties as depicted in the scenario in the Cross-Cultural Coping Scale. These variables, therefore, represent both risk and protective factors for positive emotional well-being in the sample.
The finding of the regression analysis that perceived stress was a negative predictor of positive affect in the current study is well supported by previous research with other sample populations, including the study of caregivers of cancer patients by Fitzell and Pakenham (2010) and the study of Chinese international students by Pan et al. (2008) reviewed earlier. It is intuitive that experiencing high level of stress of any kind would inevitably inhibit or tax an individual’s reserve of positive emotions and resources. Similarly, the present regression results showed that the use of religious coping strategies by the participants was associated with reduced positive emotions. That is, religious coping may have adverse effect on the positive emotional well-being for university students. Interestingly, this finding is not consistent with other research which suggests that a potential positive and favorable relationship exists between religion/spiritually and individuals’ health outcomes (Pargament 1997; Hill and Pargament 2003).
One possible explanation is that the typical stressors experienced by university/college student maybe more pragmatic in nature, such as having to achieve good grades and completing academic assignments. Therefore, coping through religious means in attending to these issues may not be effective or even useful in bringing about emotional relief for university students. Instead, these stressors may call for more tangible and instrumental coping strategies on the part of the students (Lazarus and Folkman 1984). Indeed, this postulation finds support in the fact that the regression results also showed that engagement coping was the only other cultural coping strategies to significantly predict positive affect in a positive direction in the current sample. This relationship indicates that the use of problem-focused and action-oriented coping strategies, such as engagement coping, facilitates the promotion of positive emotions among the participants in the midst of dealing with stress. This outcome aligns with the assertion made by Folkman and her colleagues, which links problem-focus coping to positive affect (Folkman 1984; Lazarus and Folkman 1984).
Hypothesis 2, which stated that the proposed model based on the eight psychosocial, acculturation and coping predictor variables would significantly predicted negative affect in the sample, was also supported by the results of the regression analysis. Paralleling the previous finding for the model on positive affect, these eight predictor variables also collectively accounted for 61% of the variance in negative affect with a large effect size (Cohen 1988). Again, the participants’ appraisal of stress level, available social support, level of acculturation and cultural identification, and endorsement of various coping strategies had an impact on their overall negative emotional experiences, including feeling of guilt, shame, irritability, distress, nervousness, hostility, etc. In other words, these factors taken together provide a good explanatory model for current participants’ negative emotions.
In particular, greater perceptions of stress on the part of participants significantly contributed to a higher level of negative affect. This close positive association between life stress and strain and negative affect has been frequently reported in many previous studies (e.g., Green et al. 2012; Nelson 1990; Paukert et al. 2006). In addition, avoidance coping behaviors were also found to be a significant predictor of negative affect in a positive direction in the current sample – those who utilized more avoidance behaviors reported more negative emotions. Conceptually, this finding is in accordance with the theoretical prediction of Folkman’s (1984) coping theory, which postulates an interwoven relationship between negative emotion and emotion-focused coping behaviors, including avoidance coping. This finding is also consistent with observations made in other cross-cultural coping studies. Avoidance coping has been shown to be maladaptive and relates to negative psychological and emotional outcomes for ethnic minorities across different stressors, including male gender role conflicts (Wester et al. 2006) and racial discrimination (Noh and Kaspar 2003) as examples.
Unexpectedly, social support was not found to be a significant predictor in the regression analyses of either positive or negative affect. This is despite the fact that previous studies of affective quality have found social support to be a relatively robust predictor of affects (e.g., Fitzell and Pakenham 2010; Green et al. 2012). While the exact reason for this finding in the current undergraduate sample is not clear, it is possible that the issue might stem from the characteristics of the social support measure used in the present research. For example, a previous study by Fitzell and Pakenham (2010) assessed participants’ social support in terms of both ‘availability’ and ‘satisfaction’ of support in predicting positive affect. The measure used in the current study, the Multidimensional Scale of Perceived Social Support (Zimet et al. 1988), however, assessed only the perceived ‘availability’ of social support by the participants. To help clarify this issue future research should employ social support scales with more nuanced dimensionalities in predicting affective quality in a similar sample population.
Finally, in addition to the findings of the main model-testing regression analyses, the present study also identified a number of ancillary findings worth noting. First, in the present sample the correlation between positive and negative affect was r = −.27, p < .001. Such a correlation suggests that the two affective constructs were only moderately related with a medium effect size according to Cohen (1988). The strength of the correlation in the current study is comparable to those reported in the original instrument development and validation study of the PANAS by Watson et al. (1988). It was also evident from this study that the patterns of predictors for positive affect vs. negative affect were clearly distinguished from each other. This finding further underscores the relative independence of the two affects. Thus, the current results lend support to the Two-Factor theory of affect (Diener and Emmons 1985) and suggest the generalizability of such a theory to the current multiethnic university sample.
Although neither heritage acculturation nor Canadian acculturation provided significant explanatory ability to the regression equations, some interesting findings did emerge. In the present study heritage acculturation and Canadian acculturation were not statistically correlated. This provides additional evidence for the bidirectional model of acculturation (i.e., viewing cultural identification with one’s own or one’s parents’ culture of origin independently from cultural identification with the dominant society) (Ryder et al. 2000). It is notable that even though neither heritage acculturation nor Canadian acculturation significantly predicted either of the affects, both types of cultural orientation formed positive relationships with both positive and negative affect. This suggests that positive and negative affect form independent relationships with acculturation and further highlight the orthogonality between the two sets of affects.
Interestingly, higher levels of heritage acculturation were found to be significantly correlated with less use of religious coping but more use of collective coping. This specific relationship between heritage acculturation and collective coping is analogous to the finding of an earlier coping study of Chinese Canadian adolescents (Kuo et al. 2006). Using the same coping scale as in the current research, the Cross-Cultural Coping Scale, the study showed that Chinese Canadian adolescents who identified more strongly with Canadian cultural values reported less collective coping in dealing with culture-related stressors (i.e., intergenerational conflict and racial discrimination) than those who had a weaker identification with Canadian cultural values. The finding provides further clues to the association between the use of collective coping strategies and the characteristics of individuals’ cultural orientations (Kuo 2011). It is posited that undergraduate students who adhered more to their culture of origin or culture of their parents would likely to have held stronger collectivistic values than those who did not. Consequently, for these students their collectivism is extended or manifested through a greater tendency to endorse collective coping, through group-, relationally-, and culture norm- based stress responses (Kuo 2013).
Limitations of the study
It is important to consider the results of the present investigation in light of a number of limitations associated with the characteristics of the present research. First, the study was based on a cross-sectional design. Consequently, any causal relationships between the psychosocial, acculturation, and coping variables in the predictor equations and positive and negative affect can only be inferred. The interpretation of the findings, therefore, requires extra caution. Second, the current results were established on a sample that was predominantly women (76%), due to the fact that the majority of the participants were recruited from the research participant pool among students who took psychology courses at the university where the study occurred. It is unclear whether and to what extent this gender disproportion among the participants might have affected the study's results. Undoubtedly, future studies examining positive and negative affect should either seek more balanced gender representations in a study or focus on the experiences of either men or women separately. Lastly, the present investigation was conducted with university student sample in a single university in Southwestern Ontario, Canada. The generalizability of the research findings for student populations elsewhere or nonstudent populations cannot be verified until future research.
Implications and directions for future research
In view of the scarcity of existing cultural and cross-cultural research on affects in general and the limitations of the present study noted above, there is significant potential for future research in this area. First, future studies involving prediction of positive and negative affect would benefit from having a longitudinal design. Such a methodological approach would enable researchers to more precisely disentangle any causal relationship between the psychosocial, cultural, and coping predictors and the affects. Second, in the current study neither heritage acculturation nor Canadian acculturation significantly predicted positive or negative affect in the regression analyses. While acculturation was not a primary focus of this investigation, it was nevertheless unclear whether these findings were an artifact of the specific characteristics of the current sample, with nearly 30% of the participants being of White/European background and 42.5% of them coming from second and later generation immigrant background. To verify these observations future research should seek to replicate the present investigation with sample populations for which acculturation and cultural adjustment experiences may be more salient and relevant (e.g., newcomer immigrants, international students, sojourners, etc.).
Third, it is observed that the prevailing cross-cultural literature on acculturation is currently dominated by research that views and assesses cultural adaptation/adjustment from a narrow psychological distress and symptomology (depressive and anxiety symptoms, etc.) perspective (Yoon et al. 2012). The current study, however, demonstrated the benefits of exploring the potential positive side of stress-coping and cultural adaptation empirically – an approach that would afford the field a fuller, richer, and more comprehensive understanding of coping, adjustment and well-being among culturally diverse individuals (Folkman 2008; Pan et al. 2008). Hence, it is hoped that this present study can serve as a catalyst to encourage other researchers in cultural/cross-cultural psychology and acculturation to consider incorporating positive emotions and positive indicators of adjustment (e.g., subjective well-being and resilience) into future research.
Finally, an attempt was made in the present study to search and piece together various discrete yet relevant theoretical perspectives to help guide and inform the research (as reviewed under the “Theoretical frameworks” section in the introduction). From this standpoint, it seems that continuous theory development works in this area would be timely and highly desirable. More concerted and systematic efforts are needed to articulate and integrate contemporary theories of stress-coping-emotion, acculturation, and psychosocial predictive models of positive and negative affect. Ultimately, scholars should strive towards extending existing acculturation theories and propositions to a framework of stress-coping-adaptation that is informed and enriched by the emerging theories of affects and emotions.