In the comments on my marriage and happiness post last week Andrew Leigh and I differed on the link between mental distress and well-being. It started when Andrew pointed to this paper (pdf) to argue that, as he put it, ‘divorce makes you happier’ (compared to a bad marriage, that is).
On average, I am pretty sure that’s right. But the paper he cited did not use the standard tests for well-being, which ask people to rate themselves on a scale according to how happy they feel, or how satisfied they are with their lives. Instead, it used the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ), which
is used to detect psychiatric disorder in the general population and within community or non-psychiatric clinical settings such as primary care or general medical out-patients. It assesses the respondent’s current state and asks if that differs from his or her usual state. It is therefore sensitive to short-term psychiatric disorders but not to long-standing attributes of the respondent.
I think of them as measuring the same underlying stuff. See for example Blanchflower & Oswald’s recent paper that ‘validates’ cross-country happiness measures by showing that they correlate negatively with hypertension.
Though it seems intuitively plausible that the GHQ and subjective well-being indicators measure the same ‘underlying stuff’, as with happiness and marriage this is an area of disagreement among happiness researchers. In Understanding Happiness: A Theory of Subjective Well-being, now quite old (1992) but still one of the most interesting books on the subject, Bruce Headey and Alex Wearing note that:
a large minority give themselves scores which are surprising either because they rate high on both well-being and psychological distress, or low on both.
In the National Health Survey of 2001 some people who were rated as having a high level of mental problems on the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale nevertheless rated themselves as ‘delighted’, ‘pleased’, or ‘mostly satisfied’ with their lives. There were more showing the expected pattern and rating their lives as ‘unhappy’ or ‘terrible’, but still we get the pattern observed by Headey and Wearing a decade earlier.
Given the nature of this group, we can’t rule out the possibility that some of them just aren’t thinking straight and give nonsense answers as a result. But there is a rational explanation as well, based on the difference between moods at various times and global assessments of how life is going as a whole. Just as it is possible to experience joyful moments when things are going badly generally, it is possible to experience mental distress when things are going ok. Headey and Wearing found that while life satisfaction and depression were strongly negatively correlated, life satisfaction and anxiety were only moderately negatively correlated. Anxiety is usually less serious than depression, and can come and go more easily, being triggered by particular situations but absent in other contexts.
In the case of people separating and divorcing, getting away from a bad relationship could greatly ease anxiety, without actually leading to happiness as we would normally think of it on the 0-10 subjective well-being scale (ie 7+). Indeed, the 2005 averages of the divorced and separated I reported last week were slightly below 7. Positive psychology, the self-help/clinical aspect of the study of subjective well-being, is built around this distinction. To achieve optimal happiness it is not enough to get rid of ill-being, the traditional focus of psychology, important as that is in itself. Real happiness is something more than just being free of anxiety, depression and other mental health problems.