Monday, May 25, 2009

What Makes Us Happy?

I hope you're having great weather and great fun this Memorial Day weekend. I'm taking a bit of a break today while we're all up at my parents' cabin north of Anchorage but while this weekend is partly about picnics and fun and being together with loved ones there is also a somber side to Memorial Day as we remember those who have sacrificed for freedom.

In keeping with that more introspective tone I offer you a link that Andrew sent me to an article appearing The Atlantic by Joshua Wolf Shenk called "What Makes Us Happy."

The article (it's very long, I warn you) examines Harvard's Grant Study where a couple hundred sophomore men from the class of 1939 were studied and catalogued over a 70-year period, becoming what is very likely the most comprehensive study on mental and physical health ever accomplished.

While the men involved in the study have mostly remained anonymous some of the participants have posthumously been revealed--such as John F. Kennedy. But to study such a group of men at such a close range for so long yielded fascinating results. I quote:

. . . as the Grant Study men entered middle age—they spent their 40s in the 1960s—many achieved dramatic success. Four members of the sample ran for the U.S. Senate. One served in a presidential Cabinet, and one was president. There was a best-selling novelist (not, Vaillant has revealed, Norman Mailer, Harvard class of ’43). But hidden amid the shimmering successes were darker hues. As early as 1948, 20 members of the group displayed severe psychiatric difficulties. By age 50, almost a third of the men had at one time or another met Vaillant’s criteria for mental illness. Underneath the tweed jackets of these Harvard elites beat troubled hearts.
Almost as fascinating as the Grant Study subjects is the man who directed the study in the last phase: George Vaillant and the article intertwines the lives of these anonymous men with the doctor who made their lives his passion.

While the article is long-winded and tedious in parts (it could have been cut down to half its size by a good editor and been much improved) the meat of the piece is thought provoking. What I came away with is this:
  • Happiness has very little to do with income or social position.

  • Happiness has everything to do with relationships.

  • Just because someone is behaving a particular way at one point in their life doesn't mean they'll continue to act that way throughout the remaining years--either for good or bad.

  • Perhaps the greatest inhibitor of happiness is ease and lethargy.

  • Mental illness is a terrible thing.

  • Don't count someone out, we all mature and progress at different speeds.

  • Only an omniscient and divine being could properly make judgments as to the success or failure of an individual. We know too little from our cursory observations to make an accurate assessment.

  • Psychologists are just as crazy as the people they study.

  • What happens to us in this life is rather inconsequential. How we deal with it is everything.

  • The four levels of psychotic "adaptations" or responses to life's difficulties that Vaillant describes seem to have some validity and purpose for understanding our emotions.
Anyway, if you have half an hour this weekend and are interested in what science may have to say about your psyche then give it a peak. I can't promise any truth but it does give you something to think about.

You never know what you're going to find here do you? One day it's macaroni and cheese the next it's this . . .

Sponsored by Tiny Prints for the holiday party invitations for children.


Laurie said...

I noted the articles on this same study. Thanks for compiling a few concise statements that clarified the study. I was not aware JFK was part of the work as I just skimmed the articles on the study. Good food for thought.

Summer said...

I've always thought Psychologists must to be a controlled kind of crazy. How can they truly help a patient unless they understand them?

And yes, having dealt with it myself and seen it in close family, mental illness is a terrible thing. But happiness can be achieved in spite of it with the right attitude and support.

Bee said...

"What happens to us in this life is rather inconsequential. How we deal with it is everything."Ain't it the truth?!

~3 Sides of Crazy~ said...

Fantastic summary that cuts to the chase, we are all the same when it comes right down to it and just because you have money doesn't mean you don't have problems.

Maddy said...

I think I knew all that anyway apart from the point that psychologists are as crazy as their patients! Thanks for the link, that will give me something to ponder over. [Thanks Andrew]

cndymkr / jean said...

Food for the body and food for thought. I like it.

K T Cat said...

Great stuff! A link is on the way in a scheduled post at my blog.

Annette Lyon said...

Fascinating--and yet a lot of it comes down to common sense.

(I like it when you get serious sometimes. :)

Laurel Nelson said...

I have that article in that issue of the magazine, and ALL Atlantic articles are long winded and tedious. I don't know why they don't edit them further but they never do. My mom was a subscriber for years, so I remember leafing through the magazine and glancing at the (sometimes) interesting articles but thinking "no way am i gonna slog through that!

A Happy Heart Blog said...

Wow, this sounds like a very interesting article Michelle. I will have to check it out. I happened to glass to my left at Summer's comment about happiness being achieve in spite - the attitude of those around someone with mental illness is so important.

I have meant to come by your blog for a long time, but haven' need to check out my excellent news - in fact - it's doubly good! Hope to be back more often - I've missed our great and insightful posts!

michelle :)

Beverlydru said...

You did a great job of summarizing this for us. Very interesting info.

Flea said...

I'll take this over mac'n'cheese any day. Off to read the article!

Lori said...

When I have a bit of time, I'll definitely check it out--even if it means I shouldn't be so judgmental of my brother-in-law!

Hairline Fracture said...

Very interesting. I'll check the article out for myself, but thanks for providing the "Scribbit's Notes" version!

Kelly @ Love Well said...

I just finished this article! I love The Atlantic. I scoop it off my husband's desk each month and read it cover to cover. Such thought-provoking, well-written articles.

And while the whole study aspect was interesting, what it boils down to struck me as ancient knowledge: Relationships are the only things that matter.