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A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder

Posted on November 21, 2012 at 5:09 AM Comments comments (32)
Here's a very funny also strangely spooky scientific satire by Richard Bentall, who makes a tongue-in-cheek proposal that happiness be classified as a psychiatric disorder. Or at least I think it is tongue-in-cheek. He might be serious. (Read it here)

Bentall's argument is seductive, wildly entertaining but also strangely spooky because it shows how seemingly impecable logical sequencing of arguments can nevertheless lead to an absurd conclusion. It simply turns all arguments for considering aspects of mental life symptoms of psychiatric disorders on their head. 

Bentall is obviously having a justified dig at the proliferation of psychiatric disorders, and whether there's anything there at all to prevent all human emotions being conceived as abnormal. Bentall proves that one certainly can rake up the arguments to do so and how useful to the task are conceptually vague concepts such as "normality" and "function". 

Smiling and social hierarchy. Please others.

Posted on October 15, 2012 at 7:44 AM Comments comments (100)
I found today news of a piece of research that may contribute to explaining the mechanism behind "Please others" behaviour. 

In Transactional Analysis terms Drivers are second-by-second behaviour sequences that play out in real time the self beliefs (script themes). Drivers are distinctive sets of words, tones, gestures, postures and facial expressions which, unconscious ways through which a person is conveying how they feel in relation to others. 

Someone exhibiting "Please others" drivers unconsciously modulates their behaviour to appear appeasing and non-threatening. They express themselves hesitantly and tentatively; they tend to lower their gaze and also smile extremely frequently. Such a person may come across as meek, easy to get on with and non-threatening. They tend to not make demands and not confront others when someone violates their boundaries. They may experience others as "walking all over" them. 

Why would somebody want to be identified as non-threatening? Like other primates, our social organisation is based on hierarchies. Primates use facial expressions - such as baring teeth (threatening) or lowering the head (submissive) to show where they perceive themselves in the hierarchy. Prof. Robert Sapolsky (Stamford University) has shown that the higher status rhesus monkeys display more threatening behaviour and the lower-status ones more submissive behaviour. By exhibiting submissive behaviour the lower-status primate reassures the higher-status one that he is not trying to challenge him and therefore is able to avoid a fight. 

In everyday life we speak of being top-dog versus underdog. Evan Carr (University of California, Sand Diego) has investigated the link between social smiling and whether one perceives themselves as top or under. It turns out that the more powerless we feel, the more we are inclined to habitually smile at everyone. "It's almost like a deference response. It's like submissive behaviour". Top-dog people engage less polite exchanges (such as responding to a smile with a smile), particularly when the cue comes from someone they perceive as a competitor. (Read the Guardian article here)

Mirroring facial expressions is an important way of fostering agreement and bonding. Meeting a smile with a blank expression has the effect of leaving the other person slightly disconcerted and anxious. This person conveys the fact that they have no need to foster an alliance with someone whom they perceive either a competitor or lower rank. 

On the other hand, smiling constantly and non-discriminately conveys an anxiety to foster a premature intimacy, borne not out of a genuine likeness for the other, but rather out of a sense everyone is a potential threat and must be appeased. "Please others" behaviour is simply a way of communicating "I am not a threat. I present no challenge. You do not need to hurt me". There is a Romanian proverb that illustrates this: "Capul ce se pleaca/Sabia nu-l taie" - "The lowered head will not be chopped off by the sword". 

Unsurprisingly people who display "Please others" behaviour have had to deal with repeated violations of their boundaries - with people that have made no concessions and have not considered them - abusive parents or guardians or teachers. They have learned that becoming angry will only excite the aggressor and will lead to a fight. As a result they repress their anger and use instead a strategy more likely to avoid a clash - presenting themselves as amenable, useful and non-threatening. However in their behaviour results in repeated boundary onslaught from others and feeling used and abused.

Functional disorders

Posted on October 10, 2012 at 3:41 PM Comments comments (157)
BBC 4 Inside health programme tackled the topic Functional disorders today - previously known as Medically Unexplained Symtoms (MUS). GP tend to assume that these symptoms have no biological explanation (they do not show up on scans or tests), which leads medics to assume that they are dealing with fictitious symptoms - in other words that the client is making them up. Fatigue, limb lameness or paralysis are just a few examples. These complaints are quite common and represent a staggering 30% of presenting problems are MUS or functional disorders.