Can the mentally distressed also be happy?

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.

When I replied that I did not think the GHQ’s measures of distress could be easily extrapolated to a measure of happiness, Andrew’s response was that

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.

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