Category Archives: longitudinal

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.”

Conflicting data on Facebook: good for university attachment, bad for Cause-related fundraising

(Facebook Wheel of Friendship - photo by jurvetson)

(Facebook Wheel of Friendship - photo by jurvetson)

Despite the online fundraising success of the Obama campaign, the Washington Post reports that Facebook Causes, “hugely popular among nonprofit organizations seeking to raise money online, has been largely ineffective in its first two years, trailing direct mail, fundraising events and other more traditional methods of soliciting contributions.” Only the Nature Conservancy and Students for a Free Tibet have raised more than $100,000 on Facebook Causes, and most of the 179,000 non-profits listed on Facebook don’t even make $1,000 from the site.  This is more depressing when you realize that Facebook usage has swelled to over 200 million.  Twenty five million Facebook users show their affinity through Facebook Causes and their belief in the environment or women’s rights or freedom of choice, but fewer than 1% of such users actually donate.

Other experiments have shown that 1-3% of a nonprofit group’s e-mail list donate money when solicited, at an average of about $80 per person. That is more than 44 times the rate at which such users are donating online through Facebook Causes.

Note: one reader, Will Coley, brought to my attention two blog postings contesting the Washington Post report.  See Fine Blog and  Beth’s Blog.  I don’t find these refutations all that persuasive; sure there are lot of Facebook Causes that are not NPOs (so the donation/cause is not the right statistic) and Facebook has a lot of young users (who are not big donors), but the original motivation of Facebook Causes was to help harness social networks to raise a lot for non-profits, and this has largely been a failure, although maybe it helps Facebook users to identify themselves with other users that share their values.

The more hopeful finding about Facebook comes from a recent paper “Social Capital, Self Esteem and the Use of Online Social Networks”.  [This is a longitudinal follow-up paper to an earlier paper by Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe in 2007 called “The Benefits of Facebook Friends: Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites.“] Ellison et al. found in panel survey data they gathered at Michigan State University (MSU) stronger evidence that Facebook usage predicted later increased levels of “bridging social capital” than that “bridging social capital” caused increased Facebook use.  [Note: see below on their strange measure of bridging social capital.]

It’s an intriguing finding, although one should note that the size of the panel is quite small (92 students completed the earlier and later survey) and there was attrition both in whom they originally asked to do the survey (where only 277 out of 800 students contacted responded) and then secondary attrition when only a third of those 277 students then filled out the follow-up survey. [Ellison et al. note that the 92 seemed demographically representative of the 277 students, but one can never know about hidden attributes that might have explained why people would stick with the survey and also explained why these same people would have made more friends.]

Moreover, one would suppose that the power of Facebook to build social capital and bridging social capital is probably higher at a university setting where most of the e-friendships are in the same town, and one is thus more likely to encounter budding Facebook friends in real life.  (Almost all research shows that it is easier to build trust and stronger ties face-to-face, so having a strong geographic concentration of Facebook friends and ‘near friends’,  in an environment where new students are establish friends,  should provide Facebook with the strongest dynamic for friend-building.)

The paper, as I noted in a blog post on the earlier study, uses weird measures of bridging social capital.  Bridging social capital is supposed to measure the degree to which one has social friendships to people of a different religion, or social class, or race or ethnicity.  Their “bridging” measures are more about attachment to MSU as a community and include: “I feel I am part of the MSU community”, “I am interested in what goes on at MSU”, “MSU is a good place to be”, “I would be willing to contribute money to MSU after graduation”, “Interacting with people at MSU makes me want to try new things”, etc.    I definitely had loyalty to my college when I was there, but I don’t know that this necessarily says a whit about how diverse my friendships were there.

With this unusual measure of “bridging social capital”, the researchers found that both higher-esteem and lower-esteem students were likely to benefit by increased “bridging social capital” (i.e., have a stronger attachment to MSU) from Facebook use, although this effect was highest for students with low self-esteem at the beginning of the study.  And they found that Facebook produced greater attachment to MSU even after controlling for general Internet use and measures of psychological well-being.

While their survey doesn’t directly get at this question, it seems somewhat different than the common findings with technology that the socially-rich get richer, and, rather than leveling the playing field, it may fuerther tilt it.  Ellison et al. don’t directly measure level of social capital at the outset, but in their finding that those low in self-esteem may benefit the most (at least in attachment to MSU), it suggests that at least in this domain the socially unattached may benefit more.

For more information, see :

Charles Steinfield, Nicole B. Ellison, Cliff Lampe. Social capital, self-esteem, and use of online social network sites: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology 29 (2008) 434–445

To Nonprofits Seeking Cash, Facebook App Isn’t So Green: Though Popular, ‘Causes’ Ineffective for Fundraising by Kim Hart and Megan Greenwell (Wash Post, 4/22/09)