This week’s Headcandy theme is perhaps one of the most difficult yet in the column to address from a scientific perspective.
Firstly, is happiness quantifiable? Perhaps to a very limited extent in the form of pleasure; by measuring levels of serotonin and dopamine (chemicals in the brain associated with reward), but they certainly don’t represent a sufficient view alone.
Is intervention by a government or a body of authority, quantifiable? Certainly not. However, there are various examples of drugs which alter our states, and governments create different paradigms within which these are limited or made available.
For example, major depressive disorder is characterised by the symptom of ‘anhedonia’ – meaning ‘inability to feel pleasure’. The symptom is so significant it can prompt a diagnosis even without the more commonly known symptoms of low mood, low self-esteem, weight loss and sleeping longer. Assuming that pleasure is a prerequisite for overall happiness, it would be expected that treatments for major depressive disorder would feature restoration of said pleasure. Some patients report the contrary.
Elizabeth Wurtzel writes extensively on her own experiences with depression and various medications in her memoir ‘Prozac Nation’. She notes in the prologue her friend’s attitude to her treatment and his lack of true understanding: “He says something about how when I’m on lithium I seem to be fine. Like that makes it all okay.” Lithium salts are not as commonly prescribed, with the majority of people on antidepressants for the first time prescribed tricyclic antidepressants. The eponymous Prozac, perhaps known more commonly in the UK by the unbranded name fluoxetine, prevents cells from taking up serotonin, allowing it to repeat its action on the brain. Wurtzel acknowledges that she received a relatively comfortable middle-class upbringing: “The idea that a girl in private school in Manhattan could have problems worth this trouble seemed impossible to me.” She notes that could she somehow become working class and have the problems she associates with that lifestyle, then perhaps “[her] misery will begin to make sense.” This raises the question of how working class America deals with depression – what if they can’t afford the medications available? Here arises an example of the UK government arguably taking some responsibility for the health, happiness, and wellbeing of all, via the NHS.
Despite this, people receiving antidepressants sometimes report an emptiness, or numb functionality on their medications: ‘Getting by’, as opposed to being truly happy. Wurtzel describes it in the prologue as “the dullness of everyday kick[ing] in”. Likewise, research is underway with some recent studies suggesting ketamine, N-methyl-D-aspartate; and light therapy (for seasonal variants) as potential depression treatments. Some of the funding for this may well come from governments, and in my personal opinion, rightly so. To have been selected by the people to lead the country entails acting in the population’s best interest. If achieved by research, so be it. Individual happiness is always best when not really individual; everyone carries a responsibility to aid the happiness of their peers on all scales, and this is no less true for the government. In the words of the great philosopher Al Green, “Happiness is when you really feel good with somebody”.
Mentioned today in Headcandy:
Elizabeth Wurtzel – “Prozac Nation”
Lawrenson et al, “The treatment of depression in UK general practice”
Zarate, Duman, et al – “New paradigms for treatment-resistant depression.”