Posts tagged: mood

Happy-What Does That Mean?

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The primary meaning of happiness, according to the dictionary, is to be favored by luck or fortune.  The third most common usage of the word suggests well-being and contentment.  It is likely that  Tom Jefferson and Ben Franklin meant the latter rather than the former.  The Bill of Rights proclaims that it is a god-given mandate to be happy. It appears that happiness is a good thing.  Unfortunately, happiness is often regarded as a state of being, rather than a label one places on their emotions.

If happiness is considered as a mood state, it should also be considered time-limited.  Emotions ebb and flow throughout days and weeks, and happiness is a qualitative label to describe the flow.  Mood is conceptualized as the average of emotions across time.  One may feel anger and happiness in extremes throughout a difficult day, but the overall rating of one’s mood may not change significantly.  Affects are the facial expressions indicating emotions to others on an immediate basis, and summing these over time reveals mood.  For example, a surly mechanic may inspire an angry affect, but the injured party’s mood will return to baseline after the incident.  Affect is typically fleeting, and mood is considered the emotional baseline.

Aristotle believed that happiness is the only human activity pursued for its own sake.  People pursue health, wealth, and power in order to be happy; as a means to an end, and not an end unto itself.  Happiness could be considered as a goal of behavior.  Jefferson was an ardent admirer of Aristotle, and likely influenced his thinking on the subject.  Happiness for Aristotle was not just a label for an emotion, but described the behavior of one who acts in accord with their virtuous nature.  When the purpose(s) inherent in our nature are fulfilled, we may be labeled “happy.”

A realistic definition of happiness incorporates the behavioral features of Aristotle, combined with modern knowledge of the brain.  While mood is considered the baseline, this does not mean the base is stationary.  When we accomplish a goal that is considered important, the affect is one of happiness.  Goals may be a manifestation of purposes inherent in our nature, but this is not necessary the case.  It is a modern certainty that environment plays a huge part in developing our “natures,” and the process continues throughout our lives.  How people define “virtuous” and their “nature” changes throughout the lifespan.  Consider that we are born as a book, and others may write in it as they please.  We may edit and filter, but graffiti will influence the copy.  Our genes define the size, shape and quality of the binding, yet the content is a joint venture.  To construct a modern theory of happiness is to realize that goals are products of genes shaped by experience- filtered through the prism of immediate need.

To be happy is to accomplish a goal.  The goal must be consistent with what we consider to be justified and necessary.  It must be meaningful to the person.  A state of happiness necessarily ebbs until a new goal is accomplished.  Happiness is less a mood state than an emotional reaction to the attainment of a goal.  It medicates a sense of stagnation by obtaining an assurance of progress.  Happiness cannot be pursued for its own sake.  We pursue happiness through our goals.  The Bill of Rights was correct in writing the “pursuit of happiness,” since it is never the object of lasting attainment.  If your goal was to read this post, I hope you’re happy.

Normal-What Does That Mean?

Dr. Holzmacher's Business LogoIt is often overlooked.  How do clinicians diagnose mental illness without knowing what it is to be normal?  This is not a trivial question.  Defining normalcy is a central issue in the training of psychologists.  Researchers focus on symptoms that reliably differentiates normal from abnormal functioning.  It is the path of least resistance to dwell on symptoms, since through the use of informants, the researcher may obtain some degree of objectivity.  What is overlooked, for the sake of objectivity, is what normality actually feels like to those who experience this state.  Unfortunately, the feeling of being in a normal state of mind is hopelessly subjective.

People who are labeled as mentally ill often comment that they just want to be “normal like everyone else.”  Like looking over the fence into the neighbor’s yard, people imagine the thoughts and emotions of others.  Implicit assumptions are made with a minimum of data.  It is often assumed that a labile (roller-coaster) mood is a sure sign of mental illness.  Patients often assert that they are more tense and anxious than normal people.  Everyone knows that seeing bugs that aren’t there definitely means one is crazy.  This could be termed a trinity of assumptions regarding normal people; that they are less moody, less tense, and never experience hallucinations.

There is some truth to the trinity, but more often than not, it serves as an ideal that is always out of reach.  Most people seriously under appreciate the degree to which normal people suffer with low moods, anxiety and transient hallucinations.  A large distinction is that for normal people, these symptoms ebb and flow, whereas for the mentally ill, these states of mind merely continue to flow.  Stated another way, normal people suffer low moods and anxiety states.  It surprises many people to learn that most normals experience transient hallucinations.  Large well-controlled studies of average people reveal how often they experience bizarre sensory phenomenon.  Almost on a weekly basis, the average person is prone to experience a bug crawling on their skin or up a wall, only to have it disappear when they look again.  If the bug disappears when they again look, psychologists call this normal, if they multiply when the person takes another peek, then we label these unfortunates as psychotic.

Do not be deceived as to what normal people experience.  Normalcy is not an ideal state of being, often imagined as being in a good mood and free of tension.  If this were the average state of the individual, most would never be motivated to leave their homes.  Tension drives behavior.  Tension is interwoven with life and abandons us at our death.  It is a river that needs to be channeled, not dammed into a confined space.  Similarly, bad moods are inescapable, yet they also may be a vector for change.  Research into the sensory experiences of normal people should convince us that we are all a little crazy.  Psychotherapy is typically more effective and rapid when the patient entertains realistic goals.  The ideal of the normal person is often a fantasy, and it may drive people towards emotional goals that are impossible to obtain.

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