Wouldn’t it be great to be a psychopath?
In some ways, yes it would. Charming, narcissistic, and skilled at deception, psychopaths tend to get what they want. Tune in to any slick crime drama or election-season debate and you’ll find a roster of manipulative, conscience-free instigators cleverly manoeuvring themselves through a crime scene of their own making.
But they are also disagreeable neurotics with poor interpersonal relationship skills, and whether they wind up in jail or in office, they are usually navigating the journey alone.
But are they happy?
This was the question posed by graduate student Ashley Love, BA’07, MA’11, and associate professor Mark Holder, who specializes in the science of happiness and teaches positive psychology at UBC’s Okanagan campus.
A newly emerging field, positive psychology focuses on ways to improve happiness and well-being, rather than focusing on poor life satisfaction as a mental illness to be treated like a disease. Although most of the work in positive psychology is focused on happiness in the broadest terms, Love and Holder had a more specific question.
After authoring a previous study together on the relationship between psychopathy and subjective well-being – in which they determined that psychopathy can be predicted by measuring personality traits such as introversion and a lack of conscience – the duo wanted to understand how the presence of these traits affected the psychopath’s happiness.
A newly emerging field, positive psychology focuses on ways to improve happiness and well-being, rather than focusing on poor life satisfaction as a mental illness to be treated like a disease.
“By examining happiness in people with personality disorders, we were investigating a much less studied population,” says Holder. “We chose to ask, ‘Are psychopaths happy?’ Because prior to our research, there were reasons to speculate that they were, and were not.”
To address this mystery, Love and Holder surveyed 431 students between the ages of 18 and 47, looking for correlations between their sense of well-being, the quality of their romantic relationships, and the personality traits associated with psychopathy – such as narcissism, impulsiveness, a manipulative nature, and a lack of empathy.
At first glance, we might just assume that psychopaths are unhappy by definition. If it’s true that happiness flows from the quality of your interpersonal relationships, and those relationships are defined by deception and manipulation, then what is there to be happy about?
On the other hand, a psychopath’s lack of empathy might work as an escape hatch from the prison of relationships. If your narcissism and lack of conscience prevent you from caring about how you connect with others, then what is there to be unhappy about?
The study found the more satisfied a subject was with their personal relationships, the better their overall sense of well-being, and the lower the evidence of psychopathic tendencies. Conversely, the higher a subject scored on the psychopathy spectrum, the lower their sense of well-being, and the poorer the quality of their interpersonal relationships.
Positive psychologists have already shown that psychopaths can learn to empathize and care about others, despite their tendency to reject important romantic concepts such as sincerity and vulnerability.
In a nutshell, psychopaths aren’t happy — but maybe with improved personal relationships, they could be.
“One way to potentially treat individuals high in psychopathy could be to teach these individuals to select healthier, positive interpersonal relationships with emotionally stable individuals,” says Love. Previous research has shown that psychopaths frequently have unhealthy relationships that contribute to their volatility. Teaching psychopaths to build healthier relationships can increase their sense of well-being, which could improve those relationships, adds Love, “resulting in a positive feedback loop leading to a potential decrease in psychopathic symptoms.”
Having positive relationships does not necessarily make you a well-adjusted person, and being a psychopath is not a relationship-killer, but the correlation alone is enough to wonder if psychopathy can be mediated with something akin to relationship therapy. Positive psychologists have already shown that psychopaths can learn to empathize and care about others, despite their tendency to reject important romantic concepts such as sincerity and vulnerability.
Although they’ve now established a link between subjective well-being and relationship quality, Love and Holder stopped short of claiming one is a direct result of the other. “Experimental studies to determine causation issues — such as whether high levels of subjective well-being lead to better quality interpersonal relationships or whether good quality interpersonal relationships lead to higher levels of subjective well-being — would be a great next step,” says Love.
Beyond the potential benefits for those with psychopathic tendencies, the field of positive psychology could open new doors for a range of socially isolated populations. “It would be interesting to examine happiness in people with other types of challenges, including brain injury and personality disorders,” adds Holder. “This might help guide healthcare providers with insights on how to best support these people.”