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June 14, 2011 / Dr. Toad

An upside to depression; a dark side to happiness

Which is better: happy or sad? Silly question — who would want to be sad rather than happy? But of course, it depends on circumstance and context. If you got lucky, you should be happy. If a loved one died, it’s normal and appropriate to be sad.

Yet these poles of the affective dimension aren’t treated equally in our society. Depression is a multi-million-dollar industry. Mania, or affective disorders where the patient is too happy for their own good, clinically happy, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to produce rows of shelves lined with “how to be less happy” books.

I’m not a naturally optimistic or happy person. With that in mind, here are my unscientific thoughts on some things people have shown about affect.

The phrase “happy imbecile” probably isn’t just a jealous slur by pessimistic curmudgeons. In our normal affective state, we actually are objectively unrealistic, suffering from illusions of control, illusions of superiority, and optimism bias. And it’s been shown that moderately depressed people outperform non-depressives in cognitive tasks that require sequential decision-making, analyzing complex problems and an assessment of odds. These findings have coalesced into a theory of depressive realism in psychology.

I heart realism

Chris Thornley

In other words, normal people really view the world through pink shades. Actually, it’s a kind of bliss-inducing chemical soup in the brain, this veil of serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. A naturally occurring  neurotransmitter cocktail that makes you feel good. It clouds our judgment just enough so we consistently overestimate our chances. People with normal neurotransmitter levels live under the illusion that things are alright, that they will get better and that we shall overcome. It’s mostly a mercy lie.

Depressed people, suffering from no such veils of optimistic ignorance, are “not cynical, mate — realistic!” (said with a cockney accent) and predict the odds correctly. Unfortunately, this may also lead them to slit their wrists. Which is precisely why having the protective idiocy veil is an adaptive strategy that’s necessary for our survival; and it’s precisely why depression is a serious clinical condition.

But you can’t have too much of the brain’s happy cocktail either. Obviously, if you suck at assessing your odds so much that you walk into a death trap with a big happy smile on your face, then natural selection will take care of you real fast. So the fog of happiness must be a rather thin veil, just big enough to obscure reality to the point where you will care about staying alive and making a life, but not so thick (the drug cocktail so potent, the shades so pink) that you can’t see anything through it at all and get completely obliterated by the impending disaster. This would be what researchers call ‘maladaptive’.

So I was happy to read a recent review paper that looks at when there’s too much happy or the wrong kind of happy.

Apparently, people who are too happy (high degree and intensity of positive emotion, high ratio of positive to negative emotion) are not as creative as people with only a moderate degree of positive emotion, however the hell you can measure that. A higher degree of cheerfulness apparently correlates with risk-taking behavior and a higher mortality rate. Mania may make you neglect threats, and is associated with profound occupational, functional and social dysfunction. A lack of negative emotion apparently can also be a marker of psychopathy, which is characterized by an absence of fear or anxiety. Feeling happy when you’re about to fight makes your body all wrong for the fighting. People in a negative mood produce more persuasive arguments than neutral controls, and those in a positive mood, less persuasive ones. Happiness apparently makes people more gullible.

Excessive happiness can be dangerous for your mental health

The association of happiness with benefits is nonlinear, like so many things in life. If you know you need to make a decision, better remember all you hate about your life and get brooding fast so that your cognitive abilities get focused and primed for less gullibility and better odds calculation.

To be fair, I have no idea how the results in the studies being reviewed here were obtained and analyzed, and whether they present only anecdotal evidence or very strong evidence (see a previous post about that). And obviously, I’m not actually saying that depression is good and happiness is bad. Depression has been linked by all kinds of studies to memory, attention and cognitive deficiencies, and possibly to dementia. Here’s Neurocritic on that.

But something here jibes with my understanding of the world when I’m not under the influence of the protective shield of rainbows and unicorns. Depressed people see the world as doomed and they’re right. Healthy people see the world as livable and they’re deluded. It seems that keeping on living in this world requires a certain amount of delusion.

Isn’t it funny in a sick kind of way that what we call normal is a kind of standard-issue madness? That it takes a specific parting with reality to be of sound mind? That those whose mental processes are too correct may end up killing themselves? That they are ill?

Toutes Directions - Autres Directions

All directions -- other directions

There are at least two ways of thinking about it, as with most things. The one I just described, where there is this fundamental chasm between perceiving reality as it is and being whole enough to live in it. Philosophically, it is bothersome because we value our rational mind, especially when it is needed for our theoretical aspirations, but also obviously in our daily lives. I’d like to think that I can assess the odds correctly when I make a decision to quit my job and pursue something different, for example. It turns out I probably don’t, and I will probably fail. How is my motivation reconcilable with my rational being? Doesn’t seem to be. Seems like I’m living a lie.

And then there’s another way to look at it. We are shielded from the harsh realities of the world in many ways. Our cells, for example, have a membrane that only lets some things through. No living being, no cell would survive the full onslaught of reality. We have a skin: dermis, epidermis. Strip us of it, and we can’t live faced directly, without a protective veil, with something as benign as the air we breathe. Does that mean that our skins and membranes are somehow enabling a lie? No, it’s weird to think that way.

So I have to think of the fog of happiness in the brain as a similar membrane against the noxious odds. It enables us to live. Yes, it shields us from some of the unpleasant truths about the world. That’s because its job is to let only certain things through, and not all at once. We can still assess odds correctly if we put our minds to it and go through the proper rational channels. It may take some training, and some practice, and some mental habits to circumvent the natural optimistic cluelessness. But it prevents our overwhelming defeat against the ocean of terror in which, without it, the brain would be immersed directly.

Thank you, serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine. Choose life.


von Helversen, B., Wilke, A., Johnson, T., Schmid, G., & Klapp, B. (2011). Performance benefits of depression: Sequential decision making in a healthy sample and a clinically depressed sample. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Online First.

Keller, P. A., Lipkus, I. A., & Rimer, B. K. (2002). Depressive realism and health risk accuracy: The negative consequences of positive mood. Journal of Consumer Research, 29, 57-69.

Gruber, J., Mauss, I. B., & Tamir, M. (2011). A dark side of happiness? How, when, and why happiness is not always good. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(3), 222-233.

Andrews PW, Thomson JA Jr. (2009) The bright side of being blue: depression as an adaptation for analyzing complex problems. Psychology Review 116(3):620-54.

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