Category Archives: depression

The how of social capital

Flickr/drjausSocial capital is a powerful resource for individuals and communities.  For individuals embedded in dense social networks, these networks and the attendant norms of trust and reciprocity strongly shape individuals’ ability to land jobs, earn higher salaries, and be happier and healthier.  But, even for those not in the networks, having neighbors who know and trust one another affords benefits in some domains:  better performing local government, safer streets, faster economic growth and better performing schools, among other public goods.

For sure social capital can be used toward negative ends: Al Qaeda, the Crips and the Bloods, the Michigan Militia are all examples where group members can accomplish things that they could not accomplish individually (because of  group social capital).  That said, the literature supports that the vast majority of what social capital is used for is to produce positive ends, not negative ones.

But why?  What makes social capital so powerful?

Robert Putnam and I had always focused on information-flows as the key mechanism.  So these social networks:

  • enable individuals to access valuable information: how to get something done, hear of  job leads, learn how better to promote one’s health, find out what is happening in a community, etc.; or
  • help individuals find partners for joint economic transactions (e.g., to know with whom to partner  in business, to close a sale to a friend or a friend of a friend, to locate a neighbor with whom one can exchange tools or expertise); or
  • spread reputations of members (or neighbors or local merchants) which causes all people in these networks to behave in a more trustworthy manner and facilitates altruism.  There is always a short-term gain to be had from cheating someone, but if the social networks quickly spread the information that one cannot be trusted, this short-term gain is swamped by the lost future opportunity to do business with others; thus it becomes more rational to be honest and trustworthy in communities (physical or otherwise) with strong social networks. Individuals are also likely to be kinder and more altruistic toward others because they know that “what goes around comes around” in densely inter-connected networks and communities; and
  • facilitate collective action: it is easier to mobilize others around some shared goal like politics or zoning or improving trash pick-up if others in the  community already know and  trust you, rather than your having to build those social relationships from scratch.

But Connected (by Nick Christakis and James Fowler) raises a different frame for thinking about this issue: network effects or contagion.  Are there properties of the networks themselves that help spread practices, independent of the flow of information?  This is difficult to answer fully since much of their evidence comes from the Framingham Heart Study where  they know who people’s friends are but not what they are doing with each other or what they are saying to each other.

That said, some of their results can be explained by information flows (e.g., political influence, or getting flu shots), but some seem likely to be working through other channels and not through information-flows (e.g., happiness or loneliness cascades).

In these “network effects” or contagion, Fowler & Christakis typically find that the strongest “network” effects are directly with one’s friends (one degree of separation), but these effects also ripple out two more levels to  friends of one’s friends (two degrees) and friends of the friends of one’s friends (three degrees).  As one would expect, much like a stone dropped in a pond, the ripples get smaller as one moves out.  In fact they refer to the “Three Degrees of Influence” Rule that effects are typically only seen up to three degrees out and not further: in the spread of happiness, political views, weight gain, obesity, and smoking.  For example, in happiness, if one is happy, one degree out (controlling for other factors), one’s friends are 15% happier, at 2 degrees of separation they are 10% happier, and they are 6% happier at 3 degrees of separation.  For obesity, the average obese American is more likely to have obese friends, one, two and three degrees of separation out, but not further.  Quitting smoking has diminishing effects out to three degrees.  For political influence, they note a “get-out-the-vote” experiment that shows that knocking on a stranger’s door and urging the resident to support a recycling initiative had a 10% impact on his/her likelihood to vote for the initiative; what was noteworthy to Christakis and Fowler is that the door-knocking made the spouse (who was not at the door) 6% more likely to support the recycling initiative based on communication with his/her spouse.  They conjecture that if this 60% social pass-through rate of political appeals (6% for spouse vs. 10% for person answering door) applied to one’s friends and if everyone had 2 friends, then one person urging friends to vote a certain way would have a 10% impact on one’s friends, a 6% impact on one’s friends’ friends (2 degrees) and a 3.6% impact 3 degrees out.  Multiplying these political effects all the way through, one vote could create a 30x multiplier. [The example is eye-opening and suggests that voting and political persuasion may be less irrational than thought, but also is based on a huge number of assumptions and assumes no cross-competing messages from friends.]

In an experiment on altrusim (explained in this post) Christakis & Fowler found that $1.00 of altruism, ultimately produced $1.05 of multiplier effect ($.20 one ripple out with 3 others and $.05 of altruism two ripples out with 9 others).

Christakis and Fowler, in their book, talk about contagion effects in voting, suicide, loneliness, depression, happiness, violence, STDs, number of sexual partners, binge drinking, back pain, and getting flu shots, among others.  [One summary of many of their findings, which they note, is "You make me sick!"]

Why do these effects only reach out 3 degrees of influence?  Christakis & Fowler suggest 4 potential explanations.

1) intrinsic decay: C&F liken this to a game of telephone where as the information gets repeated, the content gets lost, or the passion and knowledge of the initiator gets dissipated.

2) Instability of ties: because of what is known as “triadic closure“, if A is friends with B and B is friends with C, it is likely that A will become friends with C.  Because of this, closer-in ties between people have more routes connecting them, and further out ties are more dependent on only one pathway connecting them.  For example, assume Abby and Fran were friends 3 degrees removed via Bert and via Charles. If any of these intervening friendships end (say Bert is no longer friends with Charles), Abby loses her tie to Fran.  Thus, these outer ties are much less stable and averaged across all the “3 degrees of influence” friendships, many more may have zero effect because the path of influence dies out as friends change.

3) cross-information:  as one gets further out away from you, say the friends of the friends of your friends, all of these folks are getting lots of cross-stimuli from lots of other sources (many of which may come from different clusters with different habits or values) and these cross-stimuli start to cancel each other out.

4) evolutionary biology: C&F note that humans evolved in small groups that had a maximum of three degrees of separation so it may be that we became more attuned to being influenced by folks who were in a position to alter our gene pool.

So what are the network influences independent of communication.  There seem like 6 possible channels, and often it is hard to separate one from the other, although some may make more sense for the spread of behaviors and others may make more sense for spread of attitudes or emotions:

1) homophily: “Homophily” is the practice of befriending others like you — “birds of a feather flock together.” Being friends with people who are different than you can be stressful.  This is why in mates and in friends we are likely to choose others with whom we have a lot in common — think of arguments you’ve had with friends about where to go for dinner or what is right or wrong with the world when those friends have very different tastes or politics.  For this reason, one reason for increased clustering over time of obese people or smokers or binge drinkers is that it is stressful to be in groups where one is the minority and either constantly noodging others to change their behavior or else your finding yourself frequently doing what your friends want to and what you do not (e.g., eat fast food, smoke, or listen to heavy metal rock music).  As a consequence, people may vote with their feet and form new ties or strengthen ties with others with whom they have more in common.

2) norms/reference groups/culture/peer pressure:   we often measure the reasonableness of our behavior against our friends.  For example, if our teen friends have all had 6 sexual partners in the last year, then repartnering seems far more normal than if one is friends with a group that is heavily monogamous.  Ditto with obesity or smoking or other possible traits or behaviors.

3) subconscious/imitation:  as suggested with “emotion” below, sometimes we mirror others’ behavior or emotions without even thinking about it.  C&F say it makes sense to think of people as subsconsciously reacting to those around them without being aware of any larger pattern.  They talk about processes by which a “wave” at a sporting event takes place, or fish swim in unison, or geese fly in a V-formation, or crickets become synchronized — all of these happen by individuals mirroring those around them.  And in the process, emergent properties of the group arise (much like a cake takes on the taste unlike any of its individual ingredients).

4) emotions: C&F note that emotions actually affect our physical being — our voices, our faces, our posture.  In experiments, people actually “catch emotions”: others become happier by spending time around happy people or sadder by hanging out with depressed individuals.  In experiments, smiling waiters get bigger tips.  It seems quite plausible that cascades like loneliness, happiness, depression, etc. could spread simply from emotional states, independent of any information flowing through these friendships.

5) social invitations for shared action: friends often invite friends to do things — that’s part of friendship. For behaviors, one of the ways they can spread through networks is that, for example, thin friends could invite friends to exercise more, or obese friends could encourage friends to get ice cream together, or smokers could encourage others to leave the dance for a cig.

Connected notes that it is often hard, for example, to tell imitation and norms apart, “When a man gives up his motorcycle after getting hitched, is he copying his wife’s behavior (she doesn’t have a motorcycle) or adopting a new norm (the infernal things are unsafe?)”

Connected also notes how behaviors or attitudes can spread several social links out, even without the intervening link changing.  They suggest that Amy could have a friend Maria who has a friend Heather.  (Amy and Heather don’t know one another.)  Heather gains weight.  Maria, who really likes Heather, becomes less judgmental of her weight and gradually less judgmental of  obesity in general.  Maria doesn’t change her behavior but when Amy stops exercising with Maria, Maria is less likely to pressure her to resume.  Thus Heather’s obesity changes Amy via Maria (by Maria no longer urging her to keep exercising), but Maria doesn’t change her behavior and Amy and Heather don’t know one another.

It’s interesting stuff to ponder and makes one think more expansively about the role and mechanisms of social capital.  It also evokes a conversation with a Saguaro Seminar participant back in 1998 concerning whether black kids and white kids doing sidewalk painting together on the steps of an art museum could promote inter-racial trust, even if the black kids and white kids didn’t know each other, didn’t talk to one another and never met again.  [My hunch is yes, depending on the strength of their pre-existing beliefs about inter-racial trust, but that talking could make the exchange far more powerful.] Another Saguaro participant wondered whether singing together in a chorus helps build social capital, even if one never has a conversation directly with another member of the chorus.  (In the latter example, in addition to being highly unlikely, you are at least getting some non-verbal information over time from the other choral members about their trustworthiness: do they come regularly and on time, do they respectfully listen to and follow the choralmeister?)

I welcome your thoughts.

For more on the network effects, read pp. 24-30, 25-43 and 112-115 in Connected.

Designing games to save the world

WoW game screenshot - Flickr photo by wynter

Jane McGonigal, director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future, notes that the amount of time that young people spend gaming is already large and predicted to become extraordinary.  500 million people (mainly youth) worldwide spend more time gaming than in school and this number is projected to grow to 1.5 billion in a decade.  These 500 million noticeably already game enough to make them experts by age 21, according to Gladwell’s Outliers book that focuses on the importance of accumulating 10,000 hours to become a virtuoso.

So rather than wag our fingers at gamers, we should recognize what is great about game playing and why they do it, and then try to channel these skills and energy into saving the world.

Why they do it?

McGonigal cites an economist’s belief that youth are making rational choices to spend more time in virtual worlds since they are better than the real world.  She notes that there is no unemployment in World of Warcraft and hundreds of thousands of potential collaborators.  Youth can at any time participate in a mission that is constantly at the verge of what they can accomplish and be part of an inspiring story.  They get Plus-1 intelligence and Plus-1 feedback on their quests.

What do youth get extremely good at through video games:

1) expressing urgent optimism

2) forming a tight social fabric.  McGonigal believes that it takes a lot of trust to play games with people (since others stay in the games until they end, play by the rules, etc.)  [I'm not sure how solid this basis of evidence is, although McGonigal has interesting anecdotes and alludes to research, of which I'm unsure how scientific it is.]

3) gamers are in such blissful productivity that they are happier working hard than relaxing.

4) gamers take on an adventure with epic meaning.  [She notes that the second biggest wiki in the world after Wikipedia is the World of Warcraft wiki with almost 80,000 articles, which 5 million people access monthly.]

What is great about it?

“Games make it easy to build stronger social bonds with our friends and family. Studies show that we like and trust someone better after we play a game with them — even if they beat us. And we’re more likely to help someone in real life after we’ve helped them in an online game. It’s no wonder that 40% of all user time on Facebook is spent playing social games. They’re a fast and reliable way to strengthen our connection with people we care about.” [note: not sure what studies she is referring to, although apparently in some of her own games she has clearly observed such behavior.  McGonigal has said elsewhere that "Thirty minutes of playing a co-op game changes for an entire week how cooperative we are in real life....Just ninety seconds of playing with an avatar can change your odds for success in a real-world situation for 24 hours....The science shows that it doesn’t matter where you get your positive emotions; if you feel a positive emotion it has the same impact on your health and happiness regardless of where it comes from."] From “REVIEW — Be a Gamer, Save the World — Videogames make players feel like their best selves; Why not give them real problems to solve?” By Jane McGonigal (Wall St. Journal, January 22, 2011, p. C3)  [essay is adapted from "Reality Is Broken" by Jane McGonigal, Penguin Press, 2011. ]

Elsewhere McGonigal notes generally that “Studies [again not sure what studies she is referring to] show that cooperative gameplay lifts our mood longer, and strengthens our friendships more, than competing against each other.”  McGonigal also states “research shows that social ties are strengthened much more when we play games in the same room than when we play games together online.”

How to use it to save the world?

The key is to harness all the positive parts of gaming – concentration, motivation, hard work, inspiration — for positive ends. The challenge is not to ignore games but design games that make the real world as exciting as games and in the process give us knowledge and skills useful to solving real world problems.  She says that maybe we should spur developers by offering a “Nobel”-like Prize to the best invention of a game each year that helps solve a really important social problem.

Superpowers add up to superempowered, hopeful individuals.    The challenge is to convince gamers that they are also empowered to change the real world.  We need to make people’s rewards, feedback, motivation be as high in the real world.  We have to make the real world more like a game.

One reviewer skeptical of games (Catherine DeLange) noted that games are everywhere in our life and can be a force for good; “Before writing this review, for example, I went for a run. I was tired and felt like giving up after 30 minutes, but stuck it out for 45. Why? Because I knew when I got home I’d be docking my iPod with my computer and logging my run on a website called Nike Plus. The site not only tracks my progress and records my mood, but also lets me “level up” the more I run. Since I joined up, I’ve run 858 kilometres, so I’m classed as a green runner. When I hit 1000 km I’ll move up to blue, hopefully ahead of my running buddies who joined up with me. I know every extra step I run will get me further in this game.”

McGonigal has tried at least 6 games (World Without Oil; Superstruct; Evoke;  Cruel 2 b Kind;  Chorewars and Jane the Concussion Slayer – the latter to deal with a brain concussion from which she was recuperating).

She also recommends games that others have created.  The Extraordinaries provides players with a mission and instructions on how to solve it; the mission is tailored to the needs of a non-profit and the public like tracking and photographing life-saving defibrillators’ location.  The information is then uploaded to a First Aid Corps database, that tracks the location of publicly accessible defibrillators world-wide, in order to be available to help save lives.  Elude is a game to help caregivers understand what depression feels like: players complete the various game levels twice, the second made significantly harder to mirror the difficulties of achieving tasks while depressed.

1) World Without Oil: piloted in 2007 with 17,000 players.  Gamers are forced to challenge themselves to survive in a world without oil.  McGonigal claims that most players are actively continuing many of the oil-free skills they learned or invented in the game.

2) Superstruct: a supercomputer has determined that world is coming to an end and players have to invent the future of energy, future of food, health, security, social safety net.    8,000 gamers played for 8 weeks and came up with 500 out-of-the-box solutions to these problems.

3) Evoke with World Bank Institute (March 2010).  WBI invited folks in sub-Saharan Africa and in the developing world to partner together and test and develop their social entrepreneurship skills. Over 10 weeks, the gamers worked on 10 missions  addressing  issues like poverty, hunger, sustainable energy, water security, conflict, disaster relief, health care, education, and human rights. The stories were told in a graphic novel, that demanded local insight, sustainability, vision, and resourcefulness. WBI succeeded in attracting just under 20,000 young participants from over 130 countries. The collaboration among Evoke gamers in only 10 weeks led to more than 50 social enterprises being launched. “One example is this great project called Libraries Across Africa. The idea is basically a McDonalds of libraries that has money-making ventures (food, phone service) surrounding the library to make it self-supporting.

While McGonigal’s framing seems a bit pollyannish, for sure we should make lemonade of video games, even if we view them as lemons.  She notes that gamers are now gaming to escape from the real world. She observes that Herodotus said dice games were invented to distract Libyans from their famine; Libyans survived for 18 years, by eating one day and fasting the next all while distracted from their hunger by game playing.  Herodotus ultimately realized the famine was not ending so he directed the Libyans to play a final dice game and the winners were sent on an epic adventure to find a new place to live.  She notes that there is some genetic evidence that this is true: Etruscans appear to have left Libya to found Roman empire around this time.  McGonigal hopes and believes that we can empower young people to make an optimistic future come to pass.

See also earlier post on “Social Capital Games” where we discussed two of McGonigal’s efforts “Cruel 2 b kind” and “Chorewars.”

See also Gaming can make the world a better place (Jane McGonigal TED 2010 talk).

The importance of building social capital accidentally (UPDATED)

Mario Luis Small, (University of Chicago, Sociology), who spoke this summer at our SCHMI 2010 workshop, has a compelling recent book that we commend.  Mario is a wonderful person and a smart applied researcher, undertaking research with societal implications.

In his ground-breaking recent book Unanticipated Gains (Oxford University Press, 2009),  Small both focuses on how important social capital is to the health of mothers but also uses the book to explore “how social capital is built” since he thought there was a lot of research on the importance of social capital and a dearth on how to create it.  It represents a major advance in our collective knowledge.

He studied new mothers and daycare centers in the New York City area for two reasons:

  1. Daycare centers are diverse institutions (they come in for-profit, non-profit, state-run, privately-run, and religiously-run flavors);
  2. They are prime place for observing new ties being formed since many American parents deal with these during in their lives, they have high turnover, and catch mothers at a phase of their life when they are often interested in and likely to make new ties (children are an important channel through which we make new ties).  Daycare centers also come at a time in mothers’ life when they have big responsibilities (children) but low knowledge, which also makes networking very important (e.g.,  Who is a good local pediatrician? When do you worry about a rash?  When should you start on formula?  How warm does it need to be? What museums are child-friendly?).

Part of his research was about how social networks at daycare centers helped make mothers healthier and less depressed; he found significantly less depression in daycare centers where parents made more social ties and the quality of their information was much better.

But equally important was his conclusions about how social capital was built.  This is an excerpt from a piece he wrote for RSA about his research.

Levels of commitment

We interviewed the directors of many different kinds of childcare centers – 23 in all, ranging from the commercial to the nonprofit, the secular to the religious, the corporate to the standalone – and observed what staff, children, mothers and fathers (though few of the latter were visible) did over the course of operations.

At the end of our study, nothing surprised us more than how much the centers differed in their social capital. In some, most mothers forged new friendships among the other parents; together, they organized parties, arranged play dates, attended movies and dinners, and developed what many of them referred to as a new community. Joining the center had measurably transformed their social networks…. In other centers, mothers knew few, if any, of the other parents; they did not party or dine with them, or babysit their children. These centers served as little more than drop-off and pick-up locations. In one rare example, the director had even tried to build social capital but failed: she threw a pizza party for parents to socialize and almost none of them attended.

Flickr photo by Jason L Park

Mario’s central question is “why” did some succeed when other centers failed in building social capital?  He concludes that social capital was often the unintended consequence of an administrative policy.

The socially effective centers did not differ from the others in the amount of leisure time the mothers had at their disposal; in all of them, most mothers worked full-time. Race, class, lifestyle and neighborhood did not explain the difference, and nor did these centers have particularly heroic directors committed to creating a sense of community among the parents. On the contrary, few directors displayed any interest in building social capital for its own sake. Like the rest of us, they were busy; they had a center to run.

Instead, social capital typically emerged when directors were trying to accomplish some other task, one that gave parents opportunities to interact or incentives to cooperate. For example, many directors believed strongly that children should be exposed to zoos, museums, libraries, children’s parks and farms. But trips to these locations require many more adults than are needed in the classroom, to prevent children from sticking their hands in monkey cages, wandering off in parks or slipping into ponds at apple-picking expeditions. Since hiring more staff for these occasions was costly, the centers needed parents to attend. No parent volunteers, no field trips. Centers needed volunteers for other activities, too, such as sanding and painting playgrounds at the end of the year, contributing food for various ceremonies and raising money to keep tuition fees moderate. In some centers in low-income neighborhoods, mothers were expected either to raise a certain amount over the course of the year – usually about US$300 – or pay it out of pocket. To avoid paying the fee, parents had to volunteer for group fundraising activities, such as selling baked goods or holding raffles.

All of these activities – field trips, clean-ups, ceremonies and raffles – required interaction and socialisation with others; they obliged parents to meet, talk, exchange phone numbers, arrange schedules and get organized. As a result, the centers that imposed greater demands on parents provided opportunities and incentives that, over the course of weeks and months, stimulated the formation of social capital.

Mario also talks about how the daycare schedule helped build social capital.  Some centers had strict drop-off and pick-up times, with fines often running at rates as high as $10 a minute for every minute that one was late.  Other centers had lackadaisical attitudes toward drop-off and pick-up times.  The centers with rigid times, in turn had parents all arriving at nearly the same time to drop-off and pick-up their children.  Invariably, that time (just before or dropping off children) was a social capital gold mine: parents would ask other parents whether their child had had a certain behavioral problem, or would arrange playdates or would get advice about equipment, toys or books for their kid.  Mothers would seek out useful connections to tap if they were unavoidably detained at work, got a flat tire, or were stuck in a train, to have that other parent to pick up their child.  They might ask other mothers to babysit their children some time during the week in exchange for reciprocal favors.  This is another example of administrative policies designed with no attention to social-capital-building that had big consequences.  Every parent who didn’t form a social tie with others in a daycare center, regardless of their social class, cited flexible drop-off and pick-up times as the number one cause (and this was confirmed by the data).

Mario also found that the existence of a parent-teacher organization in a daycare center was a strong positive predictor of how much social capital was built.

The implication of Mario’s book is regardless of one’s organizational post, one should be more attuned to ways to build (or not destroy) social capital in the everyday policies; this is far more important than the intentional but infrequent organizational group get-together or pizza party.  The pizza party is not counter-productive, but since it is a rarity, it’s unlikely to be as consequential as the daily rhythms and patterns of the organization.

Mario notes that other research comes to broadly similar conclusions about the importance of organizational features in the building of social capital:  for example, Mitch Duneier’s work on restaurants; Maureen Hallinan’s work on schools; Frida Kerner Furman’s work on barbershops and salons; and work by Omar McRoberts and Chaeyoon Lim/Robert Putnam on houses of worship.

One of Small’s interesting findings was that one of the reasons that the daycare centers were so successful in building social capital was their homophily: they tended to draw other parents of similar socio-economic backgrounds, partly through where the centers were located, through their pricing structure and through who was eligible for government-supported programs.  Small speculated in a visit to Harvard (October 4, 2010) that the social capital gains exhibited by daycare centers would be less successful for a hypothetically new daycare center located in a mixed-income housing center and available only to its residents.  He also speculated that it would lead to more task-oriented conflict, of the kind that he observed in researching Unanticipated Gains.

We highly recommend the book for those interested in rebuilding our stock of social capital.  The book focuses much more on inter-organizational variance in building social capital (i.e., which organizational settings are more successful) than on within-organization variation in building social capital (i.e., who within a daycare center succeeds in building social ties).  He agrees that more research is needed on this second question:  the “mating” part of “meeting and mating.”  His book focuses more on what about the organization creates an important opportunity structure for building social capital.

Small also noted that the ties generally being created at these daycare centers are a strange hybrid of strong and weak ties.  Scholars like Granovetter focused on the strength of weak ties for accessing information (job leads, etc.) and the importance of strong ties for getting social support.  In general, Small finds daycare centers produce “compartmental intimates”; daycare parents use these networks both for exchanging important information relating to their children, but because of the fact that young children share all kinds of private information about parenting and because parenting often relates to many other intimate things like the quality of one’s relationship with one’s spouse, these daycare friendships often provided strong social support and friends felt comfortable talking about many personal items that directly or indirectly related to their parenting.  In this sense, these compartmental intimates offered some of the best of strong and weak ties.

Small engaged in an interesting dialogue with Robert Putnam about to what extent the focus on daycare centers obscures the role of agency (individuals’ efforts to build social capital).  Does the existence of these daycare centers substitute for personal agency and effort?  Does it compound inequalities in social capital creation.  Small thinks in general that they daycare centers are likely to reduce the class-based inequalities in social ties and Putnam’s instinct is the opposite.

From a policy perspective, Mario Small’s work suggests that if one were hypothetically figuring out how to invest $5,000 in childcare per low-income resident in an area, one would be far better providing a voucher to be used for childcare in an organizational setting, rather than a voucher for family daycare or a $5000 voucher to the mother.  Small found that the publicly-run centers also tended to maximize the social capital building:  they typically had parent associations (founded in their Head Start roots) and ran a lot more field trips.  They were also better about connecting parents to things like assistance if there domestic abuse issues, or access to dental and health exams.

Chapter 1 of Unanticipated Gains can be read here.

Video of Mario discussing his work.

An article Mario wrote on his research for RSA Journal available here.

What leads to happiness?

(Flickr photo by adwriter)

(Flickr photo by adwriter)

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.”

The looming financial crisis and middle class engagement

Selling Apples (Flickr photo by SirPoseyalKnight)

Selling Apples (Flickr photo by SirPoseyalKnight)

David Brooks, in “The Formerly Middle Class” (NYT, 11/18/08) writes:

“[T]hey [the new middle class] will suffer a drop in social capital. In times of recession, people spend more time at home. But this will be the first steep recession since the revolution in household formation. Nesting amongst an extended family rich in social capital is very different from nesting in a one-person household that is isolated from family and community bonds. People in the lower middle class have much higher divorce rates and many fewer community ties. For them, cocooning is more likely to be a perilous psychological spiral.

In this recession, maybe even more than other ones, the last ones to join the middle class will be the first ones out. And it won’t only be material deprivations that bites. It will be the loss of a social identity, the loss of social networks, the loss of the little status symbols that suggest an elevated place in the social order. These reversals are bound to produce alienation and a political response. If you want to know where the next big social movements will come from, I’d say the formerly middle class.”

I agree with David Brooks’ first fear.  That said, since social networks have always been the backbone of social movements (from abolition to civil rights to women’s suffrage) it’s hard to fathom how this isolated ex-middle class constituency is going to build a movement out of vaporware.  But with time on their hand, and the Internet at their disposal, maybe this will be the test of whether Internet tools (from Meetup to Facebook to virally circulated YouTube recruiting efforts) can be put to use to engage these displaced Americans and give collective voice to their frustrations.