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Maybe We’re Just <i> Insanely </i> Happy : Sure, Experts Say Happiness Is Good--but That Doesn’t Mean We Can’t Question Conventional Wisdom

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Don’t worry, be happy! --Bobby McFerrin

A lifetime of happiness! No man alive could bear it: It would be hell on Earth. --George Bernard Shaw

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Richard P. Bentall’s proposal cheers the joy-impaired. Happiness, the psychology professor argued, should be classified as a psychiatric illness-- major affective disorder, pleasant type. He pointed to a variety of negative consequences of the condition and speculated that if his suggestion were accepted, happiness-suppression clinics and anti-happiness medications would be soon to follow.

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When the idea surfaced in the New Republic last month, a paradoxical flicker of said emotion lit the face of more than one otherwise miserable wretch. At last, it seemed, a reputable researcher had said what perpetual pouters have always known: that those cheerful, upbeat, “Have a Nice Day!"-spouting Gumpites who skip blithely through life are screwier than sun-addled squid.

Sadly, it turns out that the Liverpool professor’s proposal, first published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, was a flash of false hope for the habitually morose. His real intention, he said, was to satirize the methodology of psychiatric diagnosis.

Bentall is adamant that his proposal not be taken seriously. In fact, though, the study of happiness has taken a serious turn, as increasing numbers of psychological researchers--loosely termed “happyologists"--have shifted their scrutiny from pathology to this more upbeat condition. And while most of the research--OK, all of the research--suggests that happiness is a good thing, it also calls into question much conventional wisdom on the subject.

According to Psychology Today’s periodic “happiness watch,” happyological studies show that nine of 10 North Americans consider themselves at least “pretty happy.” But that does not mean the condition is epidemic.

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In an extensive compilation of studies in this esoteric field, noted happyologists David G. Myers, of Hope College in Michigan, and Ed Diener, of the University of Illinois, charted the supposed facts and myths of happiness, or “Subjective Well-Being,” which they define as “a preponderance of positive thoughts and feelings about one’s life.”

Among the conclusions they list in a paper to be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science:

* Happiness is not determined by a time of life. Teen angst, midlife crises, empty-nest blues and old-age depression aren’t the problems we’ve been led to think: “Knowing someone’s age gives no clue to the person’s average sense of well-being,” they report.

* While women tend more to miserableness than men--and men to antisocial personality disorder--when all’s said and done, happiness is an equal-opportunity condition.

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* European Americans report only slightly more happiness than African Americans, and African Americans are slightly less prone to depression.

Individual misery can indeed stem from poverty, and there is a marginal connection between a nation’s wealth and its collective happiness, Myers and Diener report. But such correlations are neither key nor universal: Studies found the Irish, for instance, generally more satisfied than the richer folks in what was then West Germany. And lottery winners’ euphoria soon dumps them back to their pre-wealth emotional state, the researchers found.

Moreover, only 32% of U.S. residents polled in 1993 said they were “very happy"--as opposed to 35% in the 1957 when, in real terms, the U.S. per capita income was only half as high.

Some happyologists believe there are traits and attitudes that can lead to a happier frame of mind--although things here get chicken-or-eggy. According to the Myers and Diener study, happy people tend to:

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* Like themselves. (Maybe that’s because happy people are more likable.)

* Feel that they have control over their lives. (Did anyone doubt that prisoners, nursing home patients and the subjects of despots would say they’re less happy as a rule?)

* Are optimistic. (Happiness is usually determined by self-evaluation. Wouldn’t optimists tend to look on the bright side of their mental state?)

* Are extroverted. (But aren’t the woeful more likely to mope?)

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Beyond that, the researchers said, happy people have more friends and closer relationships. Married people are happier, as a rule, than divorced, separated or otherwise single people, and happy people enjoy their work.

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Arthur A. Stone, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, has even shown that “positive affect,” of which happiness is a component, can be good for the immune system.

“I don’t know of any evidence, behavioral or physiological, that suggests happiness is detrimental,” Stone said.

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Pressed, though, he did concede: “When you become happy, you can also become aroused. I guess someone with a cardiovascular disease might be at some small risk.”

Bentall’s original proposal made a similar (if spurious) point: “Consistent clinical evidence of an association between happiness, obesity and indulgence in alcoholic beverages . . . (makes it) reasonable to assume that happiness poses a moderate risk to life.”

He went on to note that mental illness, by some standards, is defined as “any deviation from the norm by way of excess or deficit, which confers upon the sufferer some form of biological disadvantage.” Happy people, for example:

* “Overestimate their control over environmental events (often to the point of perceiving completely random events as subject to their will).”

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* “Seem to wish to force their condition on their unhappy companions and relatives,” causing tension.

* “Give unrealistically positive evaluations of their own achievements.”

* “Believe that others share their unrealistic opinions about themselves, and show a general lack of evenhandedness when comparing themselves to others.”

* Happy people are often “carefree, impulsive and unpredictable in their actions.”

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In a phone conversation from his office in Liverpool, Bentall expressed concern that his proposal not be misinterpreted, as it was when the British press came upon his original paper in 1992.

“Some of the British newspapers reported it as if I were insane myself,” Bentall said. “Others reported it deadpan, like a (real) scientific discovery. . . . My mother wouldn’t speak to me.

“My point was that it’s very difficult to draw up criteria for distinguishing sanity from insanity,” he said. And with the ground separating sanity from insanity so shaky, even happiness can be pushed into psychologically problematic muck, he said.

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For instance: At least one mental-health expert, he said, has recently disputed the notion that hearing voices qualifies someone as insane. “A Dutch researcher . . . has found that a lot of people who hear voices aren’t distressed by them,” he said. “They’re perfectly happy. Or as happy as the rest of us.” So, the argument goes, “If they feel OK about it, why should they have psychiatric treatment?”

By the same token, he said, happy people are overly optimistic, have inflated opinions of themselves and tend to misread the world, while depressed people realize that they don’t have much control over events--"a much more accurate view.”

“Moderately depressed people are more realistic than people who are moderately happy,” he said.

And since it’s usually assumed that being able to perceive reality is the mark of good mental health, well. . . .

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The unspoken conclusion is not a pleasant thought for a Prozac nation whose economy is driven by gurus, therapists, big-screen television salesmen and others who peddle access to that supposedly positive condition.

But then, the chronically cheerful will almost certainly put a happy face on this news.


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