It’s easy for us to slip into all-or-nothing mindsets. An example would be: a person has some psychological problems so their life must be miserable. But that’s a mistaken assumption. So argue a team of Dutch positive psychologists, who’ve studied over seven thousand people over a three year period. Yes, those participants with a psychological disorder were less happy than those without, but the majority (68.4 per cent) of the mentally troubled said they “often felt happy” during the preceding four weeks (this compares with 89.1 per cent of those without a psychological problem). “The possibility of coexisting happiness and mental disorders is of clinical relevance,” write Ad Bergsma and his team. “A narrow focus on what goes wrong in the lives of the client and forgetting what goes well, may limit therapeutic results.”
The researchers recruited their sample, representative of the general population, from across the country. Trained interviewers questioned volunteers in person or over the telephone to establish signs of psychological disorder in the past month, with 16.5 per cent of the sample being judged to have a disorder based on psychiatric diagnostic criteria. Happiness was measured with a single question about frequency of happy moods over the preceding four weeks, on a scale from “never” to “always”. Relying on people’s reports of their own happiness, using this one question, is an obvious weakness of the study.
Not surprisingly, among those with a psychological problem, happiness was lowest in those with anxiety and depression (although still a significant minority of these people reported frequent happy moods). By contrast, happiness was highest in those with an alcohol abuse disorder, being nearly as frequent as in the healthy participants. There weren’t enough cases of eating disorders and psychosis to examine these conditions separately.
By following their sample up over time, the researchers established that more happiness at the study start was associated with better outcomes later on, in terms of recovery from mental disorder. Further analysis suggested this was because higher happiness was a proxy for having fewer mental disorders, being younger, and having better “emotional role functioning” (as indicated by managing to spend time on work and other activities). The fact that happiness was associated with later outcomes provides some support for the validity of the way that happiness was measured.
“Our knowledge of mental disorders is incomplete if we only look at the negative side of the spectrum,” the researchers said. “This study aims to broaden the view on positive functioning and human strengths in the context of mental disorders.”
Bergsma, A., Have, M., Veenhoven, R., and Graaf, R. (2011). Most people with mental disorders are happy: A 3-year follow-up in the Dutch general population. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6 (4), 253-259 DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2011.577086