What measure is a disorder? Twenty years ago the esteemed psychologist R. P. Benthall submitted an interesting thought experiment to the Journal of Medical Ethics. He argued that, alongside depression and schizophrenia, the emotion commonly known as happiness could be (and should be) considered a psychiatric disorder.
According to popular thought, a disorder is characterized by a derangement of normal behavior, characterized by discrete groups of symptoms, that may be traced back to a aberrant biological process. And, well, happiness does fit these definitions. Happy people have trouble being realistic and trouble remembering negative events in their past. They’re more likely to overestimate their abilities and control. They often display spontaneous, unpredictable behavior. Plus, we know that happiness can be biologically stimulated.
“Just as it is possible,” says Bentall, “to elicit schizophrenic symptoms in some individuals by stimulating the parietal lobes, so too it is possible to produce happiness by brain stimulation… both left hemisphere seizures and right hemispherectomy have been associated with prolonged euphoric states.”
Bentall does consider possible objections, including the fact that happiness is not normally considered a cause for medical concern and that most people, in fact, seek it out and want to be happy. “However” says Bentall, “[these objections are] dismissed as scientifically irrevelant.” He goes on to recommend the construction of ‘happiness clinics’ and ‘anti-happiness medication’.
Bentall is, of course, being tongue in cheek, but does so in a masterful way, poking some subtle fun at his own profession. If you like scientific papers I’d highly recommend it. It’s available online at the NCBI.