In a satirical proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder, Richard P. Bentall of the Liverpool University notes that it is a statistically abnormal psychological phenomenon that is associated with a range of cognitive abnormalities.
His proposal, which was published in the Journal of Medical Ethics in 1992, is meant to underscore the difficulties in defining what a psychiatric disease is.
Happiness should be included in future editions of major diagnostic manuals under the name “major affective disorder, pleasant type,” Bentall says, because it meets reasonable criteria for a psychiatric disorder.
Like other psychiatric disorders, the psychological phenomenon of happiness is characterized by a number of observable behaviors and measurable cognitive effects that are statistically abnormal and associated with certain impairments.
“It has been suggested that, for the purposes of psychiatric research, a disease be simply regarded as any deviation from the norm by way of excess or deficit which confers upon the sufferer some form of biological disadvantage,” Bentall noted in his proposal.
Bentall added that happiness is often associated with cognitive components such as positive affect and general satisfaction with life. In addition, uncontrolled observations in plays and novels suggest the psychological phenomenon is characterized by a carefree attitude and impulsive behaviors.
“The behavioral components of happiness are less easily characterised but particular facial expressions such as ‘smiling’ have been noted; interestingly there is evidence that these expressions are common across cultures, which suggests that they may be biological in origin,” he wrote.
Electrical stimulation of subcortical centers in the human brain can produce happiness, suggesting these areas may be involved with the development of the disease. But further research is needed to uncover the neurophysiological abnormalities that may produce happiness and the cognitive impairments associated with it, according to Bentall.
“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,” he wrote. Furthermore, research has shown that happy people have inaccurate cognitive biases, such as overestimating their control over the environment, giving unrealistically positive evaluations of their performance, and lacking even-handedness when comparing themselves to others.
“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,” Bentall continued, “it is the unrealism of happy people that is more noteworthy, and surely clear evidence that such people should be regarded as psychiatrically disordered.”