Tuesday, April 30, 2013

"What Makes Us Happy?"

Three years ago, Joshua Wolf Shenk wrote an article for The Atlantic about one of the longest and most comprehensive longitudinal studies ever carried out. The study, which started in 1939, asked for lifelong commitments from 237 Harvard physically and mentally healthy sophomore males. The men would undergo a comprehensive initial physical and mental evaluation and would answer questions about their home lives and upbringing. Then, every few years, the men would fill out questionnaires about their lives at that point in an attempt to evaluate how financial, relationship and familial success correlated with happiness.  The conclusions were fascinating and I highly recommend reading the above-linked article all the way through. It's long and daunting, but very interesting.

As you might expect, many men who'd achieved giddy professional success were sad and unfulfilled. Many of their relationships fell apart. Some were alcoholics. A few committed suicide or died early from preventable causes. There's pretty obvious data about what not to do if you want to be happy and live a long life: don't smoke and don't drink.  But what should you do?

This is where the study, which went through several patrons and administrators before falling in the lap of George Vaillant, gets interesting. Vaillant, whose own ostensibly successful and happy father killed himself at the age of 45, became interested in longitudinal studies when he first looked through his father's college reunion yearbook and saw photos of his dad and other men when they were young, vital, their whole lives ahead of them. The study, as it was set up in 1939, was supposed to quantify happiness through a set of physical, socioeconomic and emotional data. However, as you might expect, happiness was not easily counted or numbered.

The primary conclusion from the article in The Atlantic is that proper use of adaptations, or defense mechanisms, are the primary predictor of happiness.  Psychotic defenses, the most unhealthy, included hallucination and paranoia; immature defenses included passive aggression, addiction and projection; neurotic defenses, which are common in "normal" people, comprised repression, naïveté and intentional removal from trauma; and mature defenses, the most healthy, included altruism and humor, anticipation and suppression, which is temporarily putting emotional trauma on the shelf so it can be properly dealt with at a later, more appropriate time.

One man, who suffered from alcoholic tendencies and had a failed marriage, repeatedly professed his happiness in spite of his disillusionment with the WASP way of life. After his divorce, he came out of the closet and became an avowed civil-rights activist before dying at 64 from a drunken fall down the stairs. In a letter to Vaillant, he wrote, referring to a metaphor of getting the most out of life, "... let it be published … that—especially in the last five years—‘I sure squeezed that lemon!'" This subject was happy in spite of his alcoholism and failed marriage. He used the best defenses of altruism and humor to properly place his emotional traumas.

Indeed, probably the most poignant line of the article comes near the end:

"Only with patience and tenderness might a person surrender his barbed armor for a softer shield. Perhaps in this, I thought, lies the key to the good life—not rules to follow, nor problems to avoid, but an engaged humility, an earnest acceptance of life’s pains and promises."

I read the article with complacent interest until I read that line at the very end. All of a sudden, I became much more interested. I loved the thought that as these men aged, their good and bad coping habits made them who they were. These men engaged their problems in humility, as the article states.

It's a near-scientific proof of Joseph B. Wirthlin's famous religious advice: come what may, and love it.

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