Suzana Herculano-Houzel

Column_028 Happiness out of time

Happiness is one of the divine sensations that the brain gives us. But happiness in excess, who knew, can be just as serious a problem, if not more so, than the evil sadness of depression.

Sadness in itself is not bad. It’s very important to be sad when that’s what the circumstances call for: the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, unintentionally hurting someone. As an unpleasant state, sadness signals bad events to the brain and makes us try to avoid them in the future. Sadness only becomes a problem when it happens in spite of the circumstances: when everything is going well but the depressed brain sees unhappiness wherever it goes. Sadness is not a disease, but unjustified sadness is.

Just as it is possible to be sad out of time, there is also such a thing as inappropriate happiness, exaggerated for the circumstances: this is mania, a disorder that should not be confused with the compulsion to wash your hands or lock the door, and which does not necessarily alternate with depression as in bipolar disorder.

Mania is a constant state of euphoria where the brain, with its overactive reward system, considers your ideas wonderful and finds motivation to do anything. The need for sleep is reduced; the manic is full of energy and ideas, expansive, talkative and funny.

At first glance, it sounds great – but it’s quite a problem. If the justified happiness of finishing a job or meeting a loved one is a blessing, a prize earned and deserved by the brain that promotes positive actions, unfounded happiness is a curse.

Driven by the overactive reward system, the brain loses its grip and makes foolish decisions that seem fantastic, like buying ten shoes and three new cars without having the money for them. Because they are so self-satisfied, maniacs act out their grandiose ideas and despise anyone who doesn’t agree with them, be it a friend, boyfriend, work colleague or even their boss. The mania causes the person to destroy their personal and professional life – but they think everything is fine.

For the maniac, the problem lies with others, who disagree with their “wonderful ideas”, “envy their joy” and want to “cure them of their happiness”. Mania sufferers hardly ever want treatment, and often only go to the doctor when forced by their exhausted and worn-out family. After all, how do you convince a euphoric person that happiness has a time?

Originally published in June 2007 in Folha de São Paulo

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