Happiness opposed to despair/ennui; sadness to anger/irritability


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We normally view happiness and sadness to be opposites on a single continuum, but I propose that it is time to change the textbooks and view happiness as opposed to ennui/despair and sadness as opposed to anger/irritability when it comes to basic opponent affects.

But before we go down that path first a detour.

I recently read Flourishing: edited by Keyes & Haidt , and the last article by Keyes caught my attention. I looked up a few more articles by Keyes and found this one that again elaborates on the theory put forward in the book chapter.

The point Keyes wants to make is that mental illness and mental health are two different things and are relatively independent of each other. Traditionally mental health has been conceptualized as the absence of mental illness, but Keyes says that our intuitions are incorrect here and mental health is another, parallel continuum on which people can differ.

Throughout human history, there have been three conceptions of health.The pathogenic approach is the first, most historically dominant vision, derived from the Greek word pathos, meaning suffering or an emotion evoking sympathy. The pathogenic approach views health as the absence of disability, disease, and premature death. The second approach is the salutogenic approach, which can be found in early Greek writings and was popularized by Antonovsky (1979) and humanistic scholarship (e.g., Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow). Derived from the word salus, meaning health, the salutogenic approach views health as the presence of positive states of human capacities and functioning in thinking, feeling, and behavior (Stru¨mpfer, 1995). The third approach is the complete state model, which derives from the ancient word for health as being hale, meaning whole and strong. This approach is exemplified in the World Health Organization’s (1948) definition of overall health as a complete state, consisting of the presence of a positive state of human capacities and functioning as well as the absence of disease or infirmity. By subsuming the pathogenic and salutogenic paradigms, the whole states approach is, in my opinion, the only paradigm that can achieve true population health.

Thus when we talk of whole states mental health we are basically talking about two related things- a mental illness or disability dimension and a flourishing or mental health dimension. Keyes et al have performed confirmatory factor analysis on measure used to measure mental health and illness and found that the data is best explained by two latent factors-one related to flourishing and the other to illness.

This is how they define mental health or flourishing dimension.

Until recently, mental health remained undefined, unmeasured, and therefore unrecognized at the level of governments and nongovernmental organizations. In 1999, the Surgeon General, then David Satcher, conceived of mental health as “a state of successful performance of mental function, resulting in productive activities, fulfilling relationships with people, and the ability to adapt to change and to cope with adversity” (U.S. Public Health Service, 1999, p. 4). In 2004, the World Health Organization published a historic first report on mental health promotion, conceptualizing mental health as not merely the absence of mental illness but the presence of “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community” (World Health Organization, 2004, p. 12).

Keyes comes up with 13 symptoms of mental health and these include Positive emotions (i.e., emotional well-being) including positive affect and avowed quality of life; Positive psychological functioning (i.e., psychological well-being) consisting of self-acceptance, positive relations with others, personal growth, purpose in life, environmental mastery, and autonomy (see Keyes & Ryff, 1999); and Positive social functioning (i.e., social well-being) consisting of social coherence, social actualization, social integration, social acceptance, and social contribution. In DSM style they propose that individuals exhibit some minimum symptoms to classify as flourishing and those with very low scores be classified as languishing.

To be diagnosed as flourishing in life, individuals must exhibit high levels on at least one measure of hedonic well-being and high levels on at least six measures of positive functioning. Individuals who exhibit low levels on at least one measure of hedonic well-being and low levels on at least six measures of positive functioning are diagnosed as languishing in life. Adults who are moderately mentally healthy do not fit the criteria for either flourishing or languishing in life.

Keyes then goes on to show the costs of languishing and not focusing on mental health and why a narrow focus on cure/prevention of mental illness is detrimental, but that is beside the point as to today’s topic. what is most important take way for today is that there are two separate factors of mental health and mental illness.

This brings us back to the affects- happiness, sadness, ennui/despair and anger/irritability. Consider for a moment depression. It is an illness characterized by sad mood and anhedonia etc. Consider its counterpart on the illness spectrum. while a normal person not having depression may seem the counterpart, the real counterpart is mania which often has a angry/irritable mood (alongside euphoria) associated with it. Also depression is characterized as a reaction to losses/continuous exposure to stresses that makes goals out of reach/unachievable. Here the focus is preventive in nature- the state does not deteriorate further and goals do not remain unmet. However, depression or sad mood is also an avoidance reaction. One becomes withdrawn from the situation and does not fight the stress, but flights from the stress by withdrawing in a cocoon. The loss of appetite and more sleep can be seen as behavioral counterparts of withdrawing or exhibiting a flight response to stress.

As opposed to this, mania can be seen behaviorally as an active approach state in which one works actively towards the things required to overcome the loss of valued entity/life goal. Again, I propose that mania is a reaction to a situation similar to depression – when something is lost/ is under threat of losing- but this time , under stress, one fights and not flights- thus one becomes energized to right the wrong and may become angry/ irritable if the efforts to retain goals/ valued entities are frustrated by external world. It is important that both mania and depression are on the illness scale of functioning/ mental health and are a result of life trauma/ stress/ perceived/ real/ threat of loss of loved object/person. Thus the focus is preventive and the state is of scarcity.

Contrast this to a state of abundance when ones (life) goals have been met/ are within reach.// This apparent positive state of affairs may again give rise to different emotions/ behavioral manifestations depending on whether one has approach or avoidance dominant reaction. If one approaches the more free time available after goal accomplishment as a boon that can be used to home ones hobbies/find other meaning in life/ build relationships etc and not as a threat ( free time can be a threat) then one experiences positive emotion of happiness and behaviorally flourishes.

In contrast consider a similar person who has achieved everything in life – (a good job, wife, kids etc ) , but given the fact that one is living in abundance is frightened or flights from the free time that has been made available. that person will be listless, will exhibit ennui or boredom and may even exhibit despair as he finds life meaningless. Thus behaviorally he would languish.

Thus, I rest my case that happiness is opposed to ennui/despair while sadness is opposed to anger/irritability and while happiness is a measure of flourishing; sadness is a measure of illness. One can definitely conduct experiments , perform factor analysis to confirm, that indeed happiness and sadness is not a unitary construct, but are two separate but related dimensions. I would love to hear your comments.

Keyes, C. (2007). Promoting and protecting mental health as flourishing: A complementary strategy for improving national mental health. American Psychologist, 62 (2), 95-108 DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.62.2.95

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11 thoughts on “Happiness opposed to despair/ennui; sadness to anger/irritability

  1. Cole Bitting

    I think you are right to separate happiness and sadness rather than say they are on opposite ends of a continuum. You also are right to separate mental well-being from mental illness.

    I would take issue with the conflation of the two constructs. Both gain and loss are routine, as are the associated emotions/behaviors – happiness for gain and the sadness for loss. The behaviors can be appropriate, so neither happiness nor sadness has to relate to mental illness. But behaviors can become maladaptive or even pathological, and such aversive qualities could apply to either happiness or sadness. Such unhealthy styles could be specific to specific emotions or general and demonstrate a sense of characterology.

    1. sandygautam Post author

      Thanks Cole for agreeing that happiness and sadness are different constructs and so are mental well-being and mental illness.
      You have characterized happiness /ennui spectrum in terms of gains and sadness/irritability spectrum in terms of losses; and here again I concur.
      However, you state that loss and gains are both apart of life and behaviors directed at both of them are adaptive and only pathological behavior should be of concern.
      Now consider the fact that a realized or potential loss is characterized by stress. Pathological losses would be characterized by pathological stress which would in my opinion lead to illness. Hence the sadness-illness connection.
      Similarly, gains should be associated with relief and pathological relief in my opinion (via parasympathetic activation) should lead to more well-being and hence happiness- well being connection.
      so though gains and loss are routine, pathological/chronic gains and losses are not routine and would lead to either wellness or illness and thus the role and place for environment to influence wellness/ illness.

  2. Mike Sandifer

    I view joy as the flip side of anger, as both involve violations of expectations, the former with a gan and the latter with a loss.

    Expectations determine behavioral investment, and hence unexpected gains represent a “surplus” with regard to net expected intake of reinforcement. Anger responses occur when there is shortage versus expectations.

    Sadness is simply a realized loss, with concurrent suffering, or a future loss seen as unavoidable. People cry to elicit help from others, as they cannot meet their needs in this case.

    There is much more about this on my blog post about emotions at http://quantimind.blogspot.com/2010/02/emotions-defined.html

    1. sandygautam Post author

      Hey Mike,
      Your blog and posts are quite substantive. They seem to exude with original thinking.

      However, I would like to point out that there are many ways and dimensions on which emotions/moods can be seen to be opposed to each other. You mention one valid way of looking at things. Seeing joy and anger can be viewed as opposed to each other on the dimension of gain and loss- one end signifying unexpected gain and the other unexpected loss. similarly one can extend this to sadness and ennui on the same spectrum of gains and losses – sadness depicting expected losses; while ennui depicting expected gains. You do hint at ennui/boredom in your post when you talk about satiating and sighs and I think it is something you should look at more closely and incorporate in your model.

      so again one can say sadness and anger are opposed on the dimension of expectations – with losses that are expected lead to sadness and losses that are unexpected leading to anger. this is not different from the way I originally put it- in general a person having tendency to flight would be pessimistic and would expect to lose; similar a person having tendency to fight would be optimistic and would not expect to loose and become angry given a threat/stress situation. Similar analysis can be extended to happiness and ennui- both are gains- but one , one expects and thus is bored about- the other one does not expect and is surprised, overwhelmed and pleased about.

      Its even possible to consider happiness and sadness as opposed to each other on the dimension of prevention vs promotion focus, so at many times we end up saying the same things, though we think we differ.

    2. sandygautam Post author

      also, while my post is about moods, yours is about emotions so there is bound to be some mismatch.

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  4. Paranoid Schizophrenia Symptoms

    “Thus, I rest my case that happiness is opposed to ennui/despair while sadness is opposed to anger/irritability and while happiness is a measure of flourishing; sadness is a measure of illness. One can definitely conduct experiments , perform factor analysis to confirm, that indeed happiness and sadness is not a unitary construct, but are two separate but related dimensions. I would love to hear your comments.”

    Fully agree, great article.

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