Oddballs Are Happier, MD Finds

LONDON (AP) -- Want to be happy forever? Try being an oddball.

That's what University of Edinburgh psychologist David Weeks advises, based on his decade of research into happy eccentrics.

``I think I've obtained a different formula for happiness,'' said Weeks, on a recent trip to London to promote his book, ``Eccentrics.''

Take 19th-century Englishman Joshua Abraham Norton, the self-proclaimed Emperor of California. For 21 years, Norton patrolled the streets of San Francisco dressed in the same blue military uniform. He was happy, Weeks said.

Oofty Goofty, one of Norton's loyal subjects, wore swatches of fur and earned a living allowing passers-by to kick him for 10 cents, cane him for a quarter or hit him with a baseball bat for 50 cents. Goofty was happy, too, according to Weeks.

Modern-day eccentrics, according to Week's psychological assessment, are also a cheerful lot.

Gary Halloway, also of San Francisco, always wears a Franciscan monk's habit and founded a fan club for Martin Van Buren, the eighth U.S. president. Englishman John Slater, the only person to have walked barefoot across England in pajamas, lives in a cave that is flooded every day during high tide. Ann Atkin, also of England, has 7,500 plaster gnomes in her garden.

Others he considers true eccentrics include Alexander Graham Bell, Emily Dickinson, Charlie Chaplin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Albert Einstein and Howard Hughes.

``Why should we continue to groom ourselves properly and comport ourselves according to social convention while those who flout convention seem to be having the time of their life?'' Weeks wonders in his book.

Other researchers suggested that Weeks' methods, and conclusions, were eccentric -- like his finding that eccentricity is 30 percent higher in St. Paul, Minn., than in the rest of the United States.

It may simply be that more people in St. Paul responded to his advertisements. Weeks prefers to believe ``they have a lot of Scandinavians. There's a notion they're all so grim. Maybe they want to break away from it.''

Weeks contends that it's easy to distinguish between eccentrics and the mentally ill. The eccentrics are happy.

``It's difficult to support his contentions objectively,'' said Dr. Christopher McDougle, a psychiatrist at Yale University. ``I know a lot of happy schizophrenics and happy manics.''

Weeks, a native New Yorker who has been a therapist and researcher at the University of Edinburgh for more than 20 years, used unorthodox techniques to recruit volunteers and to do the statistical analyses.

In the the book, he explained that desperation for volunteers drove him to develop a survey method ``which I called multimedia survey sampling.'' In other words, he advertised.

Weeks soon realized that this excluded bashful eccentrics, so he then turned to ``the oldest form of networking known to human kind: word of mouth,'' he wrote.

He and his team gave all volunteers psychological tests. Those deemed ordinary or mentally ill were excluded.

He selected 789 Americans, 130 Britons, 25 Dutch and 25 New Zealanders for a series of personality tests and ranked them according to individuality. Simply put, those who ranked highest were true eccentrics.

It's a somewhat circular argument, since Weeks tested people whom he already regarded as eccentric.

Although Weeks didn't develop a definition of eccentricity, he settled on some 15 symptoms, including: nonconforming; creative; curious; idealistic, and happily obsessed with a hobby. He said eccentrics also tend to be the eldest or only child.

Overall, Weeks said, eccentrics are confident, stress-free and never suffer from writer's block -- although they tend to be poor spellers.

And they're healthier because they are happier. There is no down side to being eccentric, according to Weeks.

More good news: you can become eccentric, if you try.

Money helps, but it is not necessary. The best thing to do is become unemployed, to create more leisure time, said Weeks.

He said he encourages his mentally ill patients to adopt eccentric habits, to learn that ``it's OK not to conform.''

``If we could gain even the barest glimpse into how all those people came to be the way they were,'' Weeks wrote, ``it might just help the rest of us to be more creative, more original: better at being ourselves.''

The book will be published in the United States by Random House in October.