Diagnosis and the resulting treatment for schizophrenia don’t necessarily mean a person will lose his or her sense of happiness, a new study finds. Nearly 40 percent of people who suffered from the neurological disorder reported feeling happy all or most of the time.

The findings cut across much of the data already out there for schizophrenia, which suggest that roughly one-third of all sufferers will, at some point, try to commit suicide. In the United States alone, the general population faces a suicide risk of around 11.3 suicides per 100,000 people, profoundly below the 10 percent of schizophrenia patients who follow through with the act.

"Without discounting the suffering this disease inflicts on people, our study shows that happiness is an attainable goal for at least some schizophrenia patients," said senior author Dr. Dilip Jeste, professor of neurosciences and psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, in a statement.

Jeste and his colleagues surveyed 72 outpatients in the San Diego area, asking questions related to patients’ overall happiness. At the time of the survey, all but nine of the respondents were taking at least one anti-psychotic medication and 59 percent reported they were residents in assisted-living facilities.

Despite these dependences, when asked to rate their overall happiness according to the statements “I enjoyed life” and “I was happy,” 37 percent still reported they were happy all or most of the time during their treatment. The control group self-reported happiness 83 percent of the time. Roughly 15 percent of the outpatient group reported never or rarely being happy, compared to the control group, in which zero people reported those feelings in the past week.

These findings still begged for clarification, so the team sought to understand how the backgrounds of each patient affected his or her happiness levels — things like age, race, gender, socioeconomic level, and physical health. Happily, the team found many of the factors were irrelevant to predicting happiness levels. Severity and duration of the illness, cognitive and physical function, and age and race were all deemed unrelated to a schizophrenia patient’s happiness.

This showed Jeste and his team some promise. Among healthy adults, these factors greatly influence perceived happiness. More education, for example, generally means more income, which, below a certain threshold, produces greater feelings of happiness. Likewise, fortified brain power and improved physical fitness tend to produce happier people than chronic ailments of the mind and body.

Among schizophrenia sufferers, the priorities were very different. Patients were happier when their outlooks were aligned with positivity. The happiest respondents were resilient and optimistic, and they carried less stress than the unhappier subjects. For researchers, this was great news. Treating a person’s education level and desire to hop on the treadmill for an hour a day comes with obvious challenges. But changing an attitude is relatively simple because attitudes are fluid, unlike the concreteness of, say, earning a college diploma.

Schizophrenia patients may never be as happy as the general population — their brains are disordered, after all — but researchers believe the potential to make them happier could be plenty rewarding.

"People tend to think that happiness in schizophrenia is an oxymoron," Jeste said. But what his team is finding suggests happiness has less to do with brute will power and more to do with the power of positive thinking. "This means we can help make these individuals' lives happier."

 

Source: Palmer B, Martin A, Depp C, Glorioso D, Jeste D. Wellness within illness: Happiness in schizophrenia. Schizophrenia Research. 2014.