Hello happiness... hello loneliness?

7th July 2006 at 01:00
Is it possible to be too happy? This question is brought into focus by recent reports that patient satisfaction with the NHS is at an all-time high - not what you might believe from press reports. Research confirms average levels of happiness to be very high in most cultures. The question was posed in a recent paper in Journal of Happiness Studies from a team of psychologists led by Elisha Tarlow at the American University in Washington DC - "Are the very happy too happy?"

It has profound implications for the longer term goals of those who work in education: can we continue to improve things in general so that contentment rises infinitely? Or might we get to a point that is "as good as it gets"?

Teachers may want to think about how happy they are going to be able to make pupils, parents and managers. Is a certain amount of grumbling discontent inevitable?

Tarlow and colleagues suggest it's possible that excessive levels of happiness might be associated with psychological dysfunction. They suggest one rough measure of excessive personal happiness is defined by the average ratio of positive thoughts to negative ones over an extended period of time. A ratio of three positive to one negative indicates optimal happiness levels, they suggest; when the ratio reaches one negative to nine positive, it might be regarded as excessive.

The downsides of very high happiness levels, they suggest, might include a tendency to behave in an unrestrained way, causing discomfort to those around us, similar to the way the mildly drunk may lose their inhibitions.

People who have a 100 per cent positive self-image, it is suggested, might find their self-confidence leaves no space for humility or self-improvement. What the authors omit to say is that being too happy could be unbearable for the rest of us, rendering a person socially isolated in the longer run as a result.

It may be we prefer relationships with those who have a culturally acceptable level of self-doubt and a need for reassurance and support. The question then becomes: if it is possible to be too happy - what level of imperfection should we aim for in ourselves and our public services?

Dr Raj Persaud is consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital in south London and Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry. His new book, Simply Irresistible: the psychology of seduction - how to catch and keep your perfect partner, is available from Bantam Press, pound;12.99. Email: rajpersaud@tes.co.uk

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