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Don’t worry, be happy?

Don’t worry, be happy?
CHARLIE BROWNS of the world, take heart. Contrary to what docs and shrinks have been saying for years, being grumpy is unlikely to either hasten your end or add to your bodily woes.

A British study tracked 700,000 women, all over 50, for a decade to see if the happy ones actually lived longer or, conversely, if the grim reaper loved the unhappy ones more. Unhappily, or happily, depending on whether you see the glass-half-full or half-empty, the result was negative. If anything, the facts suggested the contrary: it was illness that made people unhappy, not the other way round, except that chronic melancholia might drive some to extreme behaviours such as suicide or alcoholism. The study, published in a recent edition of The Lancet, took its data from Oxford University’s The Million Women Study, which is investigating the impact of women’s reproductive and lifestyle choices on their health. 

That happiness enhances life seems almost self-evident, which probably explains the thriving happiness industry—self-styled gurus, self-help magazines and internet portals dishing out secrets, not to mention big pharma and shrinks making a killing on the depression epidemic.

What is puzzling though is that scientists took so long to see through this fallacy. Curiously enough, studies have tended to favour the happiness long life connection in recent times. One is tempted to wonder if the belief was not already insinuated into the way the studies were designed. This may not be such a far-out suggestion, for the discipline of Psychology is riddled with studies that are either biased or statistically flawed, or both. Besides, there is a disturbing trend in favour of positive results, which explains why certain biases eventually morph into facts.

Nothing’s more persuasive than a popular wisdom endorsed by science. Two large studies—the Grant Study that tracked Harvard undergraduates over 70 years to understand the key to good life, and the Longevity Study that followed 1,500 Californians over eight decades to understand the secret of long life—had come to more or less the same conclusion as the present study. Evidently, they didn’t seem to have had much effect. 

For all its myth-busting power, the present study is not without its faults. For one, it relied heavily on the self-reporting of its subjects. In rigorously designed studies, subjects are chosen randomly and then assigned to a control or treatment group. This Oxford study, however, makes up for this drawback by the sheer size of its sample—700,000. Secondly, it’s not clear if the conclusion is true of men, as the subjects were exclusively women. Moreover, moods are far more complex than a simple yes or no to the question: how often do you feel happy?

The last point raises a few tricky cultural and philosophical riddles. What is unhappiness and why do we always paint it in dark colours? Do all cultures across space and time view it through the same lens? In these times, when sadness, one among many feelings in a person’s emotional repertoire, has been corrupted into an illness called depression, there is little incentive to think outside the dark box. In their influential book, The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder, American sociologists Allan Ho-rowitz and Jerome challenge modern psychiatry’s blinkered and flawed ideas about what is normal. Just as Michel Foucault in his Madness and Civilisation unraveled the origins of the notion of madness in the west across different epochs, we may want to entertain a more nuanced and kaleidoscopic understanding of sadness and illness, and the complex tango between the two, as conceived in different times and cultures—say, for instance, Aristotle’s Brilliance and Melancholy, or Robert Burton’s 17th century classic The Anatomy of Melancholy. It is doubtful, however, if greater understanding will alter popular imagination. As Sir Richard Peto, an Oxford don and co-author of the present study, admitted, “People are still going to believe that stress causes heart attacks.” 

(The views expressed are strictly personal)
Rakesh Kalshian

Rakesh Kalshian

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