Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Happy Happy, Joy Joy

"Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."

Abraham Lincoln

Abe was typically pithy when he supposedly said or wrote this, but even he may have nodded in this instance, for it reflects a simplistic and misleading conception of what happiness might be. It came to mind after the media buzz generated by a study about happiness and social networks. The study suggested that those individuals rated highest in happiness (by a "standard measure" of the same) were most likely to have broad social networks of similarly happy people.

The first thing that is apparent is the stunning obviousness of this "finding," like so much of social science research. I mean, who could have guessed that happy people are not usually recluses, or surrounded by miserably negative folks? It is much like another shocking recent study suggesting that television watching is usually inversely proportional to happiness. It also confirms what every disaffected teenager has suspected: the popular "in" folks really are different.

Well, I suppose the study may show that schadenfreude, by means of close-up exposure to the unhappy, is not the best route to happiness. To be sure, when I ask people what (if anything!) they have found helpful about a recent psychiatric hospitalization, I am surprised that the response often involves their apparently gratified awareness of others who are even worse off than they are. But this may suggest that it is primarily the distressed who may be helped by acquaintance with the even more distressed; happiness may enjoy a magnanimity that unhappiness cannot afford.

Of course, people have debated what happiness means for thousands of years. I guess the contemporary question is whether one can be seriously, lastingly unhappy without also meeting criteria for depression. We have decided that bereavement, as well as other various disappointments in life's natural course, is distinct from depression, but is unhappiness that occurs for no particular reason anything other than depression?

In this business we talk about someone being "euthymic," or free of significant depressive or manic symptoms. But this is a fairly sterile term, and it seems like happiness ought to be something more, perhaps a spiritual sense (secular or not) that one's life is headed in a meaningful trajectory. Yet happiness is not inconsistent with pain and suffering; indeed, we might say that unhappiness is suffering exacerbated by a sense of meaninglessness. So can one be happy and depressed at the same time? How about happy and dysthymic? I'm not sure.

I hope this blog has already established that medications are not my chief personal or professional interest, although in light of escalating psychiatry/pharma scandals, I think I may list a separate disclaimer indicating my near-total lack of interaction with drug companies over the years. And clearly there are things one can do on one's own or in psychotherapy to improve one's mood and likelihood of happiness.

One of those things is increasing one's proximity to other people, preferably happy people. One of the cruel vicious circles of depression, however, is that people, particularly happy people, do not generally relish the company of seriously unhappy people (that may be one way they stay so happy). At the risk of sounding excessively wry here, I suppose that unhappy people ought to seek out the company, at least, of those somewhat less unhappy than they are, thus ratcheting up their own happiness potential ever so slightly. Thereby one might progressively advance closer to the shangri-la of the truly happy.

A significant hitch can occur when the most negative people in one's life, the ones potentially most detrimental to happiness, also happen to be one's family, friends, or associates. There is always the possibility that, like a substance abuser needing to avoid triggers, one could need to break free of a toxic influence. Problematically, this study suggests that if you want to become or remain happy, you ought to avoid the unhappy like the plague. I guess the naturalistic fallacy, the notion that what (contingently) is the case ought in fact to be the case, is the basic hazard of science.

But there is also the risk that unhappiness, like depression, can come to be seen as primarily a lifestyle choice and not what it is, an extremely complex interaction of biology and behavior. The risk of Lance Armstrong stories is the notion that anyone ought to be able to overcome cancer if they only try hard enough; the parallel risk with this kind of study is the notion that we can safely blame the depressed because they "choose" their unhappiness. In this business, if it's simple, it's almost always wrong.


Anonymous said...

I think happiness only exists as a function of its coexistence with depression. As humans, we operate on the basis of a multi-channel system of beingness -- each stream of consciousness is finely tuned to the frequency of different aspects of life, but functioning collectively as a unit which we call our unified self. Therefore, by this definition, it is possible to be happy and dysthymic simultaneously.

For example, you could be euphorically happy socially, but excrutiatingly depressed in your work sphere. These duel life streams may cross-contaminate and modulate each other (along with other stream interference), and the resultant balance is your mean diagnosis. Genetic predisposition to resilience against life's assaults, ratio of happy to sad friends, learned coping ability etc., also factor into the equation.

If all your channels were tuned to a happy frequency, the system would collapse negating all joy, and revert back to a flat nothingness -- a bit like non-existence. The differential between streams is the necessary dynamism; which without, we'd be emotionless zombies.

So when people say they are happy, what do they mean? -- they're on the good side of maths.

I think the sensation of happiness is more palpably and accurately felt as a momentary spike; a reaction or juxtaposition to a proportionately larger dip in a sequence of life events. Lasting 'happiness' is really a general contentment that stems from experiencing more positive than negative.

Most people experience schadenfreude as pleasurable in the short term, but feel guilty afterwards. Therefore it can only constitute true happiness -- in all its ephemeral beauty -- for the sadist.

There are people who have the innate capacity to generate happiness, even in a cloud of gloom; there are others who are doomed, like slaves, to reflect or respond to the atmospheric temperament of any given social situation (or perversly generate gloom out of sunshine!) . The former should seek out gloom because they will emerge as spritely and effervescent as their natural state compels them to, while at the same time, upping the happiness index (or reducing the sadness index) of their less fizzy neighbour.

The problem is that generally gloomy people may find bubbliness irritating, and so out of comfort, perpetuate their own gloom by gravitating towards more depressed than not friends.

Anonymous said...

As a severe chronic depressive, I can attest to the fact that being around happy people can sometimes not only be annoying, but it can also aggravate the depression. You question yourself as the what you're missing, what you're doing that is so very wrong that keeps you from being happy, too. Then, the self-loathing begins to strangle you and you flee back to seemingly uncomplicated solitude.

Novalis said...

This reminds me of diverse reactions to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings (even though depression is quite a different issue than substance abuse, although the two obviously often coexist).

Some people really take to AA and swear by it, while others say that nothing makes them want to drink so much as...an AA meeting.

Elin said...

I can only agree with the findings. I've gone from severely cynic and depressed (and heavily medicated) to somewhat content to occasionally very happy indeed. Unfortunately I've had to shed approximately 90% of my social circle in the process, because, lo and behold, shunning the negative people miraculously improved my own mood. Doing so also made it easier to stick to the decision not to let my old negative thought patterns get the better of me.

Neil: To me, being depressed and unhappy was really a lifestyle choice. And no, I don't mind being blamed for being a self-indulgent, negative prick these days whenever I slip back into old habits. Because it's true, and I'd rather be happy.