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
Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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