A Longitudinal Analysis of Happiness

What Makes Us Happy?
Joshua Wolf Shenk, The Atlantic, June 2009

I’ve long been intrigued by people and how they relate to one another. I have considered ad nauseum the source of human happiness. Since I was quite young I realized happiness could not be derived from riches alone; there are simply too many who are either happy and poor or sad and rich. When I became an atheist I realized happiness does not derive from god or faith in a higher power. Happiness, I’ve understood well, is all about relationships. It turns out I am correct.

Arlie Bock—a brusque, no-nonsense physician who grew up in Iowa and took over the health services at Harvard University in the 1930s—conceived the project with his patron, the department-store magnate W. T. Grant. Writing in September 1938, Bock declared that medical research paid too much attention to sick people; that dividing the body up into symptoms and diseases—and viewing it through the lenses of a hundred micro-specialties—could never shed light on the urgent question of how, on the whole, to live well. His study would draw on undergraduates who could “paddle their own canoe,” Bock said, and it would “attempt to analyze the forces that have produced normal young men.” He defined normal as “that combination of sentiments and physiological factors which in toto is commonly interpreted as successful living.”

The Grant Study–as it would be known–is an ambitious and audacious quest to ascertain the source of health and happiness. It is longitudinal, which means it tracks relatively small samples over long periods of time. The breadth and depth of data collected from these 268 Harvard men from classes 1942, ’42, and ’44 is impressive.

Exhaustive medical exams noted everything from major organ function, to the measure of lactic acid after five minutes on a treadmill, to the size of the “lip seam” and the hanging length of the scrotum. Using a new test called the electroencephalograph, the study measured the electrical activity in the brain, and sought to deduce character from the squiggles. During a home visit, a social worker took not only a boy’s history—when he stopped wetting his bed, how he learned about sex—but also extensive medical and social histories on his parents and extended family. The boys interpreted Rorschach inkblots, submitted handwriting samples for analysis, and talked extensively with psychiatrists. They stripped naked so that every dimension of their bodies could be measured for “anthropometric” analysis, a kind of whole-body phrenology based on the premise that stock character types could be seen from body proportions.

Dr. George Vaillant has been chief curator of the study for the past 42 years.

His central question is not how much or how little trouble these men met, but rather precisely how—and to what effect—they responded to that trouble. His main interpretive lens has been the psychoanalytic metaphor of “adaptations,” or unconscious responses to pain, conflict, or uncertainty. Formalized by Anna Freud on the basis of her father’s work, adaptations (also called “defense mechanisms”) are unconscious thoughts and behaviors that you could say either shape or distort—depending on whether you approve or disapprove—a person’s reality.

Vaillant explains defenses as the mental equivalent of a basic biological process. When we cut ourselves, for example, our blood clots—a swift and involuntary response that maintains homeostasis. Similarly, when we encounter a challenge large or small—a mother’s death or a broken shoelace—our defenses float us through the emotional swamp. And just as clotting can save us from bleeding to death—or plug a coronary artery and lead to a heart attack—defenses can spell our redemption or ruin. Vaillant’s taxonomy ranks defenses from worst to best, in four categories.

These adaptations are, in order, “psychotic”, “immature”, “neurotic” (common in “normal” people), and “mature”.

The healthiest, or “mature,” adaptations include altruism, humor, anticipation (looking ahead and planning for future discomfort), suppression (a conscious decision to postpone attention to an impulse or conflict, to be addressed in good time), and sublimation (finding outlets for feelings, like putting aggression into sport, or lust into courtship).

“Much of what is labeled mental illness,” Vaillant writes, “simply reflects our ‘unwise’ deployment of defense mechanisms. If we use defenses well, we are deemed mentally healthy, conscientious, funny, creative, and altruistic. If we use them badly, the psychiatrist diagnoses us ill, our neighbors label us unpleasant, and society brands us immoral.”

The take-away from this, of course, is that it is vitally important the way we react to the stimuli in our lives. Are our behaviors likely to lead to an increase in happiness or not?

By the time the Grant Study men had entered retirement, Vaillant … had identified seven major factors that predict healthy aging, both physically and psychologically.

Employing mature adaptations was one. The others were education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, and healthy weight. Of the 106 Harvard men who had five or six of these factors in their favor at age 50, half ended up at 80 as what Vaillant called “happy-well” and only 7.5 percent as “sad-sick.” Meanwhile, of the men who had three or fewer of the health factors at age 50, none ended up “happy-well” at 80. Even if they had been in adequate physical shape at 50, the men who had three or fewer protective factors were three times as likely to be dead at 80 as those with four or more factors. (Emphasis added)

The primary lesson from the study–perhaps only because it confirms my own theory–is that relationships matter.

In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

In contrast to the Grant data, the Glueck study data suggested that industriousness in childhood—as indicated by such things as whether the boys had part-time jobs, took on chores, or joined school clubs or sports teams—predicted adult mental health better than any other factor, including family cohesion and warm maternal relationships. “What we do,” Vaillant concluded, “affects how we feel just as much as how we feel affects what we do.”

This is important and partially counter-intuitive. It matters more as parents that we enlist our children in the rigors of chores than it does for us to provide to them the safety of a warm and loving home environment. The importance of participation in school clubs and sports teams is made quite strongly in a book I’m currently reading, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Skye is on the math team. Perhaps Kirsten and I need to look to increased involvement for her and her sisters.

It seems counter-intuitive that positive emotions make us vulnerable. The reasons are fascinating and surprising.

Positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs—protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections—but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.

I think this fact alone leads to the ruin of many lives of those who do not understand it. Risk is vital to happiness. It is far easier to insulate ourselves from rejection and heartache by not engaging with others than it is to open up to those with whom we would like to love. The result is a small shallow circle of social interaction and sadness. Lord Tennyson had it right when he wrote, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost Than never to have loved at all.” (In Memoriam A.H.H., 1849)

Now that we have gleaned from the Grant Men the secrets of human happiness, all we have to do is grab it, right?

Seeing a defense is easier than changing it. 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.

Read the article. In it you will certainly be provoked and enlightened. Perhaps therein you might find a jewel of wisdom that will appreciably enhance your own happiness. If not, at least you’ll have something to talk about with your friends.

1 Comment

  1. This was a fascinating read. It makes sense that our happiness is relative to how we handle challenges and adapt, using our defense mechanisms. I wasn’t surprised that relationships are most important to our happiness.

    However, I was surprised that Shank considered childhood industriousness more vital to adult happiness than nurturing maternal relationships. Yes, it is counter-intuitive, Brent, as is his idea that positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. But it was kind of an epiphany; I can see that while positive emotions make us feel warm and comfortable in the present, negative emotions and challenges do force us to get out of our comfort zone and make us stronger, and better prepared and able to deal with stressors in the future.

    I found other interesting points in the article: that cholesterol levels at age 50 have nothing to do with health in old age, and that the significance of childhood temperament and social ease diminish over time.

    Thank you for the “jewels” of wisdom, Brent. The Atlantic is a great magazine!

Leave a Reply