This Just In: Disabilities Don't End Happiness

Maybe I'm in a bad mood and didn't even know it, but a new study I read about this morning is rubbing me the wrong way. Wait. Let's measure my mood. Am I happy? Is it possible, probable or surprisin

Feb 16, 2005 at 2:06 pm

Maybe I'm in a bad mood and didn't even know it, but a new study I read about this morning is rubbing me the wrong way. Wait. Let's measure my mood. Am I happy? Is it possible, probable or surprising that I might be happy?

According to this study, conducted by a University of Michigan Health System team, being a person with a disability and rating your mood as positive is a first-class, big-deal, who'd-a'-thunk-it cause for astonishment.

Nope. I'm not making this up.

Here's how it went. Forty-nine pairs of people were asked to record their moods every few hours for at least three months, using hand-held personal data assistants (PDAs) that had been programmed to beep as random reminders to note mood at a given moment.

Half of the participants were receiving dialysis treatments a few times a week, treatments that clean the blood of an individual who has failing kidneys. The other half were primarily healthy individuals, matched in number in terms of age, race, gender and education.

The subjects with serious illness recorded the same level of mood (consistently mostly positive) as their healthy, non-disabled counterparts. The "surprise," the researchers reported, was that those with serious illness or disability do not "wallow in misery and self-pity." Rather, they were found to adapt to a new situation, exhibiting the necessary resilience to adapt to this new curve life had thrown.

Now, don't get me wrong. I, for one, hope I never have to experience dialysis. I also hope I never have a stroke or a heart attack, am seriously injured in an auto accident or become diabetic. Still, if any of those dreaded disasters befell, I know enough about human nature to know that I'd probably figure out some new coping strategies in a hurry. So would you.

The real surprise, as I see it, is that supposedly educated, intelligent researchers had to design a study to figure this out — and that they honestly found it startling that people with serious illness or disability might actually be happy.

The sad thing is that while one team of researchers is spending a gazillion grant dollars to uncover the startling truth that people with disabilities or illness can be just as happy as their same age, sex and race counterparts, it is just as likely that somewhere else another gazillion is being spent to discover that — you guessed it — people with disabilities or illness can also actually experience sadness, sorrow and depression.

We should be smart enough in the 21st century to realize that humans are humans with and without disabilities and that, as such, we have the capacity for the full range of emotions, personality traits, attitudes and talents.

If, for example, your nature is to be the quiet, introspective type, content to hang out with just a few close friends or curl up with a book by the fire, being diagnosed tomorrow with multiple sclerosis isn't going to change those inclinations. If you are a natural optimist and begin losing vision, chances are pretty good that, well, you'll still see your world through the proverbial rose-colored glasses.

If your wont is to complain, a disability will just be ever so much more fodder for your pastime. If you are the life of the party, at ease regaling a crowd with your latest adventures, acquiring a disability will probably give you more entertaining stories to tell.

Still, crazy old myths are hard to squelch and a number of them keep floating around. How we can really believe that people, just because they've been dealt a disability as part of personal makeup, are either super saints or malevolent misfits seems ridiculous; but on some level, those myths persist.

The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between. Most of us are part saint, part sinner and just moving along life's path, trying to figure out our best direction.

In his memoir, the late, great Christopher Reeve pretty much captured the essence of the point I'm trying to make. For a brief instant, the trauma of his horrific accident and ensuing disability tapped a despair that led him to contemplate "checking out." But then, reflecting upon family and friends and the love that flowed in both directions, he realized he was, as the book title so wonderfully expresses it, Still Me.

We are human first, and human with a disability very decidedly second. If fate deals an unpleasant blow tomorrow, I'll still be me; you'll still be you. Once the news has been absorbed, human resilience and adaptation will kick in and the capacity for happiness will be the same it always was.

The next time a team of researchers wants to use a bunch of money to "discover" the "surprise" that people with disabilities can be happy, I wish they'd talk to me.