Self-Esteem & Future Time Perspective: How One’s Orientation Affects Their Sense of Self

When you look to the future, what do you see?

Are you positive about it? Negative? Confused? Certain?

And how does this predict your level of self-esteem?

That’s what one study by Southwest University and Ohio University set out to determine by examining Chinese and American college students and their feelings about the future.

Future & Past Time Perspective

We’ve talked about time orientation in past posts.

Americans generally have a future time perspective, while the Chinese favor a past time perspective.

Future time perspective involves goal-setting and forward-thinking. 

Future-oriented cultures are progressive and look toward – you guessed it – the future.

They try to see the big picture.

They plan and are driven by aims and goals.

Past-oriented cultures are conservative and risk-averse. 

They look at the past and present as interchangeable.

The past is revered and directs the future. 

Tradition is important, as are family values.

As you can see, each culture views time – and the future – very differently.

The Study

Using the FTP Scale (Future Time Perspective) and the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, 340 American undergrads and 460 Chinese undergrads were tested.

The study found that the American undergrads were more negative and confused about the future, as well as more positive, perspicuous, and perseverant about it.

American students also exhibited higher self-esteem than their Chinese counterparts.

What do these results mean?

The study has some answers.

Results Analysis

Why are young Americans more pessimistic about the future than their Chinese counterparts?

The study suggests that ever since the 2008 financial crisis, U.S. GDP has suffered, while China, as a developing nation, has a higher growth rate.

These socioeconomic factors may impact both groups’ levels of pessimism.

As for the Americans’ higher levels of optimism, this could be due to an innate belief in the economic development and national trends of the country.

American individualism may also impact the undergrads’ level of confusion about the future.

Those from individualist cultures more often believe that the future is in their hands. This makes for both isolation and uncertainty.

Those from collectivist cultures have a social safety net.

Their future is also viewed from a collective perspective (parents, friends, teachers, etc.), so this group involvement may reduce feelings of uncertainty for Chinese undergrads.

Self-Esteem

In both the American and Chinese groups, self-esteem was linked to future-negative or future-positive sub scale scores.

Those who had a positive view of the future had higher self-esteem, while those with a negative view of the future had lower self-esteem.

Similarly, those confused about the future had lower self-esteem, while those perspicuous about the future had higher self-esteem.

The higher degrees of optimism and perspicuity about the future in the American group led to a higher average level of self-esteem overall.

The Meaning of Well-Being: A Qualitative Cross-Cultural Study

What does “well-being” mean to you?

Back in 1984, the World Health Organization defined health and well-being as follows:

“Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being.”

This universal definition of well-being differs from subjective well-being, which is how one evaluates one’s own quality of life, how one feels in it, and how one feels they function in it.

Research and literature surrounding subjective well-being focus on happiness, positive affect, and life satisfaction.

Social well-being is more in tune with social behaviors: how one interacts with social institutions and mores, how he/she interacts with others, and how others react to him/her.

Considering these differences, this study comparing well-being constructs between German and Chinese students looked at social support as an indicator of social well-being, and happiness and satisfaction with life as indicators of subjective well-being.

Well-Being Study

It can be assumed that the definitions of the above terms might differ between these two groups, based on their differing cultures, as might the objectives to accomplish each.

Via focus groups and questionnaires, the study assessed perceived social support through rated statements like:

  • “I experience a lot of understanding and security from others.”
  • “If necessary, I can easily borrow something I might need from neighbors or friends.”
  • “I have friends and family who will simply just hug me.”

Similarly, satisfaction was measured through statements like:

  • “The conditions of my life are excellent.”
  • “In most ways, my life is close to my ideal.” 
  • “I am satisfied with my life.”

And, lastly, happiness was measured via statements like:

  • “Some people are generally happy. They enjoy life regardless of what is going on, getting the most out of everything.”
  • “Some people are generally not very happy. Although they are not depressed, they never seem as happy as they might be.”

The Results

Happiness

Both groups defined happiness criteria as including social contacts, positive emotions, and quality of life. Where the two countries differed was in social contact.

Social contact was the most frequently mentioned aspect in China and the least in Germany.

Another interesting aspect of the way each group viewed happiness was in the angle they took. 

The Chinese groups saw happiness as pursuing a dream/goal and/or seeing it fulfilled, while the German groups saw two types of happiness: uncontrollable (which is designed by luck or fate, for instance) and controllable (as in achieving something). They also specified that happiness is subjective and brief.

Life Satisfaction

Both groups noted different kinds of satisfaction.

First, an individual realistic standard; second, an ideal standard that’s changeable. 

Lastly, they mentioned one’s perception of current satisfaction.

Quality of life was seen by both groups as a significant factor of life satisfaction, but the Chinese students focused on good living conditions (like high salary and economic conditions), while the German students focused on basic needs fulfillment (a home and food, etc.).

The researchers concluded that these differences may be based on the economic focuses of the two countries.

The Chinese groups saw contentment with one’s situation and a positive attitude about life as major contributing factors to life satisfaction, while the German students noted that satisfaction can come with comparing one’s current situation with the social norm or an individual standard.

Perceived Social Support

Chinese students focused on societal support, like charities, companies, and government policies, when discussing sources of perceived social support, while German students focused more on direct social networks.

German students mentioned financial and material support more frequently than their Chinese counterparts.

Both groups mentioned emotional support, while only the Chinese groups talked about “asking for help” indirectly, such as by posting on social media to gain empathy.

This study shows that though the themes of well-being may be universal, the contributing factors to well-being differ across cultures, often depending on cultural values, perspectives, and expectations.

How Culture Impacts a Person’s Sense of Control (aka Locus of Control)

Do you believe in fate?

Last week, we talked about how the degree to which someone feels life is directed by destiny dictates their locus of control – that is their feeling of control over their own lives.

Let’s look at how the locus of control unfolds in the workplace.

The Blame Game

When a goal is set and not reached in a workplace environment, the reactions of your colleagues can be very telling.

Sheila blames Jeremy for not delivering the documents in time for her to complete her task.

Jeremy blames Tom for not communicating promptly.

Tom blames his home life for distracting him.

Team Leader Lisa admits she missed the mark and should have taken the campaign in another direction. She apologizes for the part she played in not meeting the goal.

People with an internal locus of control take personal responsibility for their role in a group’s failure, while those with an external locus point at everyone else but themselves, whether they see fault in the “weakest links” of the group or in external factors.

Cross-Cultural Factors

How do cross-cultural factors come into play in the locus?

The locus of control is directly related to personality orientation; however, social psychologists have begun to study the majority locus of control in various cultures and the factors that influence it.

They’ve discovered that quite often the people of any given culture look at fate or self-control in a generally collective manner.

As you may have guessed, individualist cultures generally demonstrate an internal locus of control. They believe they’re the masters of their own fate.

Collectivist cultures – like those of China or Japan – demonstrate an external locus. They accept that things are out of their hands and don’t put weight on the individual’s role in the whole.

To illustrate this, when Americans and Chinese were surveyed about their view of fate, these were the results.

locusofcontrol

89% of questioned Americans agreed with the statement, “What happens to me is my own doing,” while 65% of Chinese admitted, “Sometimes I feel I don’t have control over the direction my life is taking.”

This aligns with each culture’s dominant traits, with Americans espousing ambition, individualism, and the “American dream,” while China espouses harmony and collectivism.

Next week, we’ll talk a little bit about how the group locus of control can be divided up further amongst ethnic groups and even simply locations in the same country. We’ll also talk about primary and secondary control. Stay tuned.