i recently read an article in The Atlantic Monthly called What Makes Us Happy. it’s a fascinating overview of the Harvard Grant Study, a 72-year-long analysis of 268 men, one of the most comprehensive longitudinal examinations of people and their long-term happiness ever performed. the study is very similar in spirit to Michael Apted’s brilliant Seven Up! series, which examined the lives of a group of British schoolchildren over the course of 40 years, and provides some amazing insights into the human condition.
so what’s the punch line? what makes us happy? is there a set of basic factors common to people who are deemed, or deem themselves, happy?
in short, it seems the simple answer is "No." there’s no one set of things that guarantees happiness.
happiness is a complex, slippery thing, a state of being experienced subjectively, without clear causation. over the course of the lives of the men in the study, many experienced both happiness and sadness; happiness is not static or stable or concrete. many who appeared incredibly stable and well-balanced as young men went through depression and turmoil. on the other hand, many from troubled upbringings found success and happiness despite a bad start. some that seemed depressed and unhappy by any objective standard actually characterized themselves as happy.
for me, there were a few particularly insightful things in the article, not necessarily on the subject of happiness, but on human psychology as a whole.
there is a school of psychological thought that all of our perceptions of reality are distortions (although not necessarily in a negative sense). we see the world through a set of adaptations (or defenses) that evolve over the course of our lives. they are our unconscious thoughts and behaviors that help us deal with pain, conflict and uncertainty. based on the work of Anna Freud, there are four types of adaptations:
- Psychotic: These are the isolating adaptations (like paranoia, schizophrenia, or megalomania) that make reality tolerable to the person experiencing it, but that seem crazy from an external perspective
- Immature: A level above the psychotic, these reactions (e.g., passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy) are better, but still impede intimacy
- Neurotic: These are the reactions of "normal" people, and include things like intellectualization (reduction of painful things into objects of formal thought), dissocation (removing oneself from one’s feelings), and repression (blocking or ignoring input from one’s senses)
- Mature: The healthiest adaptations of all include things like humor, altruism, anticipation (looking forward to plan for future discomfort), suppression (postponing response until the time is right), or sublimation (finding outlets for feelings, like focus on work or sport).
our usage of these adaptations may change over time as we experience our lives. if i look at my own life honestly, i’d have to say most of my adaptions fall into the neurotic category, with occasionally mature responses. it’s difficult to really be objective about it, of course, and that’s one of the points of the article. it’s tough for people to see their own adaptations, the lenses through which they bend the light of the world and their experiences. rather than finding fault and illness with unhealthy adaptations, however, the champion of the study (George Vaillant) casts our use of them simply as an unwise deployment, and something we can change.
in other words, even someone whom a psychiatrist would characterize as depressed can grow, modify their adaptations, and thrive. this may be a slightly simplistic view when examined in the light of neuropsychology and the physiological basis for depression and other mental illnesses. i don’t think they are necessarily in conflict, but it seems to me the biological dimension of behavior shouldn’t be entirely discounted.
Factors for healthy aging
Vaillant did identify what he considered to be seven factors associated with healthy aging, based on the Grant Study. there is no clear and definitive causation (i.e., there are plenty of exceptions to the rules), but these things seemed important in many cases.
- Employing mature adaptations
- Stable marriage
- Not smoking
- Not abusing alcohol
- Some exercise
- Healthy weight
of the men in the study, 50 percent who were deemed "healthy happy" at age 80 possessed at least five of these factors. none of the men with three or fewer of these factors were happy at age 80. depression was a major factor as well; of the men who suffered from depression by age 50, 70 percent were dead or ill by age 63. although not stated, this is probably because depression erodes one’s ability to maintain a number of the factors above (e.g., approach to adaptations, stable marriage, smoking, alcohol abuse).
what are some factors that don’t really seem to matter???
- Cholesterol levels at age 50
- Social ease (which helps when you’re younger, but doesn’t matter as much as you age)
- Childhood temperament (i.e., shy, anxious kids can still grow up to be healthy and happy)
it’s all in how you look at things (squeeze those lemons!)
there’s a great little snippet embedded in the article that encapsulates a lot of the theory:
A father, on Christmas Eve, puts into one son’s stocking a fine gold watch, and into another son’s, a pile of horse manure. The next morning, the first boy comes to his father and says glumly, "Dad, I just don’t know what I’ll do with this watch. It’s so fragile. It could break." The other boy runs to him and says, "Daddy! Daddy! Santa left me a pony, if only I can just find it!"
when i read this, it made me realize just how much of my life i have spent being negative, or at least, spent too much time looking at both sides of things, seeing both good and bad. to think that someone could find joy in a pile of manure, that there is a way to turn anything on its head if only you try — this is amazing to me, and makes me think just how much happier i would probably be if only i looked at things differently. the problem is we are continually cloaked in a veil that clouds our awareness, a veil of mindlessness and forgetfulness. we forget to take things in, we forget that there is a different way to look at the world and our experiences; instead we mindlessly follow the path of least resistance, past patterns, unwise adaptations.
one man in the study, a successful writer and gay rights activist, led a life that was paradoxical. he clearly suffered from depression, went through two marriages, then came out of the closet to his wife and children after many years. he drank heavily. at the same time, he was successful, achieving many things. he died at age 64 after falling down a flight of stairs, with high blood alcohol levels in his autopsy results. near the end of the study, Vaillant sent him a manuscript-in-progress about the study and asked for his input. he wrote:
The methodology you are using is highly sophisticated. But the end judgments, the final assessments, seem simplistic. I mean, I can imagine some poor bastard who’s fulfilled all your criteria for successful adaptation to life … upon retirement to some aged enclave near Tampa just staring out over the ocean waiting for the next attack of chest pain, and wondering what he’s missed all his life. What’s the difference between a guy who at his final conscious moments before death has a nostalgic grin on his face as if to say, ‘Boy, I sure squeezed that lemon’ and the other man who fights for every last breath in an effort to turn back time to some nagging unfinished business?
another perspective on happiness and perception. squeeze the lemon. live every moment. it may be bitter, it may suck, it may not in fact always make you happy, but you will have truly lived. how many of us can say we have truly lived, and how many have followed easy paths that may have been less fulfilling, because they weren’t willing to risk? is the latter such a bad thing, after all? who is to say which is true happiness, and which isn’t?
the road to happiness?
it seems to me what this whole study says is that each of us has the power to understand and shape our view of the world, craft our own version of happiness, whatever that is. think about how you respond to the stress and anxiety and pain in your life, and try to do it in a healthy way. don’t smoke or drink too much. eat healthy and exercise a little. if you think you’re getting depressed, get help for it.
at the end of the day, happiness is relative. there is no clear path to it, no "Seven easy steps to Nirvana." in some cases, the path to it may be through distinct unhappiness. one simply can’t know. should i squeeze the lemon or stick with rice porridge? or can i do both, depending on the day and how i feel?
for me, it is a profoundly sad image to think of lying on my death bed, struggling for my last breath, wondering if i had lived my life. there’s only one chance. no do-overs. do i want to die happy? yes. do i want to die feeling regret? no. and yet, would i rather die with the taste of sour lemon, having no regrets? would you?