Psychopaths: Can they be happy in love?

Study by Kelowna UBCO prof considers whether psychopaths, who feel little remorse about hurting others, can ever be happy.

  • Oct. 5, 2016 10:00 a.m.

Mark Holder

Popular television series like Dexter and Criminal Minds have given a renewed high profile to psychopaths. And while pop culture makes it appear psychopaths get everything they want, a UBC researcher wants to know if they are truly happy.

“On the one hand, psychopaths should be happy,” says Mark Holder, an associate professor at UBC Okanagan. “They feel little remorse about hurting others, and they have some personality traits linked to high levels of happiness such as self-gratification and narcissism.

“On the other hand, psychopaths may be quite unhappy because they have poor and superficial social relationships characterized by using people, manipulation and lying.”

Holder and UBC graduate student Ashley Love assessed the well-being (happiness and life satisfaction), ill-being (depression) and psychopathy of 450 undergraduate students on UBC’s Okanagan campus. Study participants were asked to rate the quality of their overall romantic relationships as well as their sense of commitment, satisfaction, romance, and trust with their romantic partners.

High quality social relationships, and a romantic connection, are viewed as critical factors in happiness, says Holder, who studies the science of happiness, and teaches psychology and behavioral neuroscience.

“Psychopathy is linked to antisocial behaviours including callousness, lack of empathy, pathological lying, manipulation of others, self-interest, superficial charm, and impulsive behaviour,” says Holder “Therefore, it is no wonder that a psychopath’s intimate personal relationships tend to struggle.”

The study determined that those who scored higher on a measure of psychopathy could have their unhappiness partially attributed to the poor state of their romantic relationships.

“The more traits individuals share with psychopaths, the less well-being they display, and the more ill-being they exhibit. Psychopaths tend to be really unhappy people,” says Holder.

The findings, he says, could lead to better treatment for psychopaths.

“Provided they are given the right tools to improve their well-being, which includes identifying how their personality and quality of their relationships are connected, they have a chance to improve things,” says Holder. “These individuals can display concern for others when properly motivated, which suggests they can be taught to behave in ways that improves their social relationships.”

Holder’s study was recently published in the Journal of Happiness Studies.

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