The Atlantic Magazine has a very interesting story called “What Makes us Happy?” (June 2009)
The author was granted rare access to a longitudinal surveyof 268 men who entered Harvard College in the late 1930s; Harvard scholars tracked them over the last 8 decades through adolescence, “war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and old age.” [The author suggests that the Harvard scholar who has guided this study (The W.T. Grant Study) over the last roughly half century, George Vaillant, may have used the study to try to make up for deficiencies in his own childhood, suffered when his father committed suicide.]
“Yet, even as he takes pleasure in poking holes in an innocent idealism, Vaillant says his hopeful temperament is best summed up by the story of a father who 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!’
“The story gets to the heart of Vaillant’s angle on the Grant Study. 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.
“At the bottom of the pile are the unhealthiest, or psychotic, adaptations—like paranoia, hallucination, or megalomania—which, while they can serve to make reality tolerable for the person employing them, seem crazy to anyone else. One level up are the immature adaptations, which include acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy. These aren’t as isolating as psychotic adaptations, but they impede intimacy. Neurotic defenses are common in ‘normal’ people. These include intellectualization (mutating the primal stuff of life into objects of formal thought); dissociation (intense, often brief, removal from one’s feelings); and repression, which, Vaillant says, can involve “seemingly inexplicable naïveté, memory lapse, or failure to acknowledge input from a selected sense organ.” 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).
Vaillant found in general that people improve at adapting. Toddlers often exhibit psychotic adaptations and older children commonly show immature adaptations, but these disappear as children age. In the Grant Study, adolescents used immature defenses twice as frequently as mature defenses, but by mid-life the ratio had reversed: they were four times more likely to respond in mature ways. Vaillant also noticed that altruism and humor grew more prevalent between the ages of 50 and 75. [It is for these reasons that Vaillant examined the subjects over their life trajectory rather than at a fixed point in time, because the progression or lack of progression in defenses was especially important.]
What were Vaillant’s conclusions?
- Relationships were the only thing that really matters: “It is social aptitude, not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging”, Vaillant said. Aside from an individual’s defenses, relationships at age 47 were the strongest predictor of late-life adjustment. 93 percent of those men who were happy at 65 had a close sibling when younger. Those who didn’t have close siblings found these connections in parents or uncles, or mentors or friends.
- Vaillant dismisses social determinism. Social ease predicted good psychosocial adjustment in college and early adulthood, but became less significant with time. And shy or anxious kids by age 70 were just as likely to be “happy-well” as outgoing kids by age 70.
- Besides relationships and mature defenses, the best predictors of thriving (physical and psychological) in senior years were “education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, and healthy weight”. If one had 5+ of these factors at age 50, half were happy-well by 80 and only 7.5% “sad-sick.” Conversely, no one with with three or fewer of these health factors at age 50, ended up happy-well at age 80, regardless of physical shape at age 50.
- Cholesterol levels at age 50 did not predict happy-wellness in old age.
- Being fit in college explained late-life mental health better than late-life physical health.
- Of the men diagnosed as depressed by age 50, over 70% were dead or chronically ill by 63. Pessimists aged far less well than optimists.
Read the Atlantic article here by Joshua Wolf Shenk “What Makes Us Happy?“.
The Boston Globe also had an interesting recent article also on happiness called “Perfectly Happy: The New Science of Measuring Happiness Has Transformed Self-Help” (by Drake Bennett, 5/10/09)
See other recent posts on happiness “Happiness is Contagious“, “Do Fat Friends make you fat (and less happy)?“ and “Gallup takes daily pulse of American happiness/Krueger’s interesting happiness research.”