Are Gay Men Happier?

By Neuroskeptic | October 5, 2012 9:28 am

A neat little study from UCLA psychologists Francisco J. Sánchez and colleagues examines the mental health of homosexual men using a unique identical twin design.

The paper kicks off with a remarkably lucid introduction:

Men would rather drive around lost than stop and ask for directions. Although this is a gross stereotype, the notion that men should be self-sufficient and able to solve their own problems is a dominant ideal within traditional views of masculinity… men who rigidly adhere to such ideals may harm their own health if they avoid seeking help when they need it.

In general it reads more like a blog post than an academic paper, which is great. If all papers (and especially social science ones) were written this way, I would be a much happier man. Speaking of happy men…

The authors’ basic idea is that many men, wishing to appear ‘manly’, don’t talk about or get help for their problems, especially psychological issues: boys don’t cry, and men certainly don’t. However, the authors argue that gay men, generally less encumbered by traditional masculinity, may be an exception to this rule.

So they took 38 pairs of male ‘identical’ twins, who grew up together, but who weren’t quite identical: one of each was gay, and one straight. By controlling for most genetic and environmental factors, these twins provide a kind of natural experimental test of the effects of homosexuality per se. Not a perfect one, but about as good as we’re going to get.

In accordance with the authors’ predictions, gay men were indeed more open to seeking psychological help.

But unexpectedly, they were actually less likely to report experiencing psychological distress (on this scale). That’s surprising, given several previous reports of higher rates of mental illness in homosexuals, which has been dubbed ‘velvet rage’.

Sánchez et al’s data suggest that gay men may be, er, more gay (…the other kind), and that their increased rates of diagnosed mental illness are a product of their greater willingness to seek help: maybe straight men are just in denial.

But there’s a lot of caveats here. It’s a small study, based purely on self report measures, and the gay twins were compared to their own straight twins, but those twins are quite possibly not typical of straight men in general. It might also be that having a straight twin makes life easier for gay men. Still, it’s an interesting set of data.

ResearchBlogging.orgSánchez FJ, Bocklandt S, and Vilain E (2012). The Relationship Between Help-Seeking Attitudes and Masculine Norms Among Monozygotic Male Twins Discordant for Sexual Orientation. Health Psychology PMID: 23025300

CATEGORIZED UNDER: mental health, papers, science
  • omg

    My first boyfriend, a Matt Bomer look-a-like turned out to be gay. Coming out of the closet required counselling for him, his friends, anyone I know who's open and proud about their homosexuality. This study looks to be about attitudes to stereotypes and conformity pre-? post-? counselling/support networks and not necessarily sexual orientation per se.

  • http://petrossa.me/ petrossa.me

    This paper has a lot going against it besides being soft science and therefore unscientific.

    But anyway, simple logic can tell any simpleton that being gay in a gay hostile world can't lead to a higher state of wellbeing.

    Ask any Iranian homosexual hanging from a crane.

  • Anonymous

    O boy, a more skeptical attitude would be appropriate on this blog. And this isnt neuroscience but psychology, so why is it discussed on this otherwise interesting blog?
    Typically the type of pseudoscience relying on utterly unscientific selfreport thatis more appropriate for housewives magazines in between knitting tips & tricks.
    Epic fail!

  • DS

    I will not believe such findings until MEG and EEG source localization of the happiness locus corroborates them.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14647896216499813443 Kapitano

    I suspect there's a subtle kind of bias involved in recruitment for this kind of study.

    What kinds of people will agree to participate in studies of their psychological well-being?

    (a) People who're sufficiently confident that they don't mind being examined.

    (b) People who like to think of themselves as victims, and see the study as an opportunity to express it.

    This study may have attracted more of the first group. Who of course will be happier, in general.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Anonymous: Oooh, burn! You got me… except… I was skeptical in the last paragraph, and I even criticized self-report (and linked to my post all about the problems with it).

    Kapitano: Good points there.

  • http://staffanspersonalityblog.wordpress.com/ paradigmo

    Maybe it relates to personality. I get the feeling gays are more extraverted (which relates to happiness).

    Anonymous: There is always room for improvement but self-reports have proven reliability and validity.

  • Anonymous

    Introspection as an explanatory model as most commenters here favour is the death of any empirical natural science (such as neuroscience). It is what sets psychology apart from serious science, and the article here once again proves this. I think it was Leibniz who said: “No metaphysics in physics!” And he was damn right.

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    petrossa, thanks!

    Anonymous 6 October 2012 12:28

    I found that paper ludicrous-be it only because it ignores the fact that “identical” twins raised together are often a very special couple indeed with one being the speaker of both twins to the external world- the other twin having less of a social life outside the twin couple from an early age.

    You also learn, sometimes, of “identical” twins sharing the same bed to sleep, as a habit, in adult life for decades at home or sharing the same sexual partners without always the knowledge of those partners etc…

    This said, self-report might be the best way to measure effects and side-effects of drugs.

    It is rather foolish to expect the same methodology in psychology and in physics when it is not even in the least reasonable in non psychiatric medical research.

  • Anonymous

    I will openly admit to a general skepticism of therapy and help, and to a belief that being traditionally masculine, self-reliant, is profoundly rewarding — at least for those who, by nature, want it.

    Having bared my prejudices, I will suggest that gay men have lower sexual frustration and this may cause increased happiness. It seems like gays who are interested in long-term affection can in many cases get that and still get some action on the side, at least that's what I hear; I have no data. Gay sexual life may simply be inherently more felicitous on average in this and other ways (though felicitous in terms of STD transmission it ain't). That one's psychosexual existence is pretty key to happiness I will not bother attempting to support.

    I would also think long-term serial monogamy and stuff like that are moderately less problematic for gays. Like if you just get bored after eight years and feel like breaking up, this will be somewhat less problematic given a relative unlikelihood of having kids. Remaining friendly may even be more likely. And if you just want to lay lots of people during part or all of your life, as a lot of men do or at least kinda do, this will be easier for gays.

    These are plausible and disciplined speculations, but speculations nonetheless; I don't claim to be doing rigorous work here.

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    Anonymous,8 October 2012 12:27

    “gay men have lower sexual frustration and this may cause increased happiness”

    I am afraid that many gays are still in the closet with sexual frustrations even in Western countries. Apart the homosexuals “in their closet”: we had in France, until recently, a flamboyant Culture minister, Mr Frédéric Mitterand, who complained to the press- when he was replaced -that his gay sex life was put to a hold by being a minister since he couldn't expose his body guards to the heavy clubbing he would have wanted and he would not impose to his adopted son to invite sexpartners at home.

    Some gays men have confide in me their intense suffering from their partner philandering habits, other younger men suffered intense depressed moods from the feelings of being used as sexual objects etc…

    Life is complicated for everybody and the gays communauties-so to speak – are a very diverse lot of gays individuals.

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Neuroskeptic

No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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