The Best Scholarly Article You Might Ever Read

Long about 1992, back when I actually read most of the print magazines I subscribed to, I came across an excerpt in Harper's of an essay printed in the Journal of Medical Ethics entitled "A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder" by Richard P. Bentall of Liverpool University. I was so intrigued by the excerpt that when I went to Iowa, I schlepped my book bag over to the medical library, tracked down the relevant volume of the journal, photocopied the article, then read and highlighted it.

I still have my 18-year-old photo, and recently told a friend I'd make her a copy of her own. Today it occurred to me to see if it was available online. Turns out it is. Here's the abstract:

It is proposed that happiness be classified as a psychiatric disorder and be included in future editions of the major diagnostic manuals under the new name: major affective disorder, pleasant type. In a review of the relevant literature it is shown that happiness is statistically abnormal, consists of a discrete cluster of symptoms, is associated with a range of cognitive abnormalities, and probably reflects the abnormal functioning of the central nervous system. One possible objection to this proposal remains - that happiness is not negatively valued. However, this objection is dismissed as scientifically irrelevant.

The piece is so deadpan that people insisted to me that it was absolutely serious, that there was nothing funny about it. But check this out:

Certain kinds of social behaviour have also been reported to accompany happiness, including a high frequency of recreational interpersonal contacts, and prosocial actions towards others identified as less happy (3). This latter observation may help to explain the persistence of happiness despite its debilitating consequences (to be described below): happy people seem to wish to force their condition on their unhappy companions and relatives.

and this:

Certainly, if television soap operas in any way reflect real life, happiness is a very rare phenomenon indeed in places as far apart as Manchester, the East End of London and Australia.

and then consider this passage, and think about its relationship to certain types of religious belief and behavior:

According to Radden (26), behaviour may be described as irrational if it is bizarre and socially unacceptable, reduces the individual's expected utilities, or is not grounded on good (ie logically consistent and acceptable) reasons; in the latter case, in particular, Radden believes that the behaviour should be the subject of psychiatric scrutiny. A similar view has been taken by Edwards (27) who claims that bona fide cases of psychiatric disorder are characterised by actions that fail to realise manifest goals, thinking that is illogical and replete with contradictions, beliefs that should be falsified by experience, the inability to give reasons for actions, unintelligible or nonsensical thinking, and a lack of impartiality and fairmindedness. (emphasis added)

and this is my favorite passage in the whole thing:

It has been shown that happy people, in comparison with people who are miserable or depressed, are impaired when retrieving negative events from long-term memory (29). Happy people have also been shown to exhibit various biases of judgement that prevent them from acquiring a realistic understanding of their physical and social environment. Thus, there is consistent evidence that happy people overestimate their control over environmental events (often to the point of perceiving completely random events as subject to their will), 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 (30). Although the lack of these biases in depressed people has led many psychiatric researchers to focus their attention on what has come to be known as depressive realism it is the unrealism of happy people that is more noteworthy, and surely clear evidence that such people should be regarded as psychiatrically disordered.

Yes, it's long and dense. But it's insightful, funny and worth your time. Read it and liken it unto yourself, that it might be for your profit and learning.


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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on July 7, 2011 7:59 AM.

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