As many of you may know, one of my recent areas of interest has been the subject of happiness. How to find it, how to keep it, how you lost it, where it went, why you need it, why it seems impossible for some and natural for others, etc etc.
On the surface my interest in this subject sounds strange, considering I am an annoyingly happy person. But it’s true. I am obsessed with the search for happiness.
When thinking about what sparked my interest, I came up with three factors:
- The recent political campaign in November. Like many others, the campaign dominated my thoughts, and many times caused me to get in discussions with tax-hating Republicans about their reasons for siding with McCain. Their conservative fiscal ways was noted as a prime factor, which usually led me to respond with, “How much money do you need? It can’t make you happy, you know.” I wasn’t sure that was true, however, and so I wanted to find out.
- Standing on the periphery while my friend Jason battled with depression issues.
- About two months ago, I realized my 2008 resolution challenge resulted in my having read literally every single book in my home except one, “The Progress Paradox.” After being surprisingly fascinated by that one, I was coincidentally given another happiness-focused book that I promptly devoured.
It was after reading those two books, combined with the other two factors noted above, that I realized how much this issue interested me. Probably because there is no real answer and no simple solution. I’m complicated like that.
I’m bringing this up because I’ve just finished reading another amazing foray into the search for happiness, this Atlantic Monthly article about “one of the longest-running-and probably the most exhaustive-longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history. Begun in 1937 as a study of healthy, well-adjusted Harvard sophomores (all male), it has followed its subjects for more than 70 years.”
Amazing. The piece is over 13,000 words, so my guess is you have neither the time or interest in perusing the entire thing. Understandable. But because many of the learnings found in this study are important and relevant to nearly everyone, I’ve culled together what I found to be the most insightful and noted them below. Let’s get our learn on together.
A great analogy about depression:
Most psychology preoccupies itself with mapping the heavens of health in sharp contrast to the underworld of illness. “Social anxiety disorder” is distinguished from shyness. Depression is defined as errors in cognition. Vaillant’s work, in contrast, creates a refreshing conversation about health and illness as weather patterns in a common space. “Much of what is labeled mental illness,” Vaillant writes, “simply reflects our ‘unwise’ deployment of defense mechanisms. If we use defenses well, we are deemed mentally healthy, conscientious, funny, creative, and altruistic. If we use them badly, the psychiatrist diagnoses us ill, our neighbors label us unpleasant, and society brands us immoral.
Weather patterns. I love that. The study noted many examples of its subjects being perfectly happy at one point in their lives and terribly depressed later. And vice versa. Surprisingly common, happiness was an ebb and flow thing for many people.
Now, I don’t think understanding that metaphor is necessarily going to help those with depression, and my guess is that mentioning it to depression sufferers would likely, and appropriately, be met with a punch to the nose for trying to bring cute analogies and common sense into a gravely serious and mostly unexplainable condition…but, still, I can’t help but love that metaphor. Life might suck sometimes, and for a lot of us it does most of the time. But as sure as it will be bleak and stressful and no fun, it will also get better. The weather always does.
After following these subjects for 25 years (think about that – 25 years), as well as conducting research outside this study, Vallaint noted six factors that are important for lifelong happiness:
Not abusing alcohol
Anecdotal study evidence of these factors:
Of the 106 Harvard men who had five or six of these factors in their favor at age 50, half ended up at 80 as what Vaillant called “happy-well” and only 7.5 percent as “sad-sick.” Meanwhile, of the men who had three or fewer of the health factors at age 50, none ended up “happy-well” at 80. Even if they had been in adequate physical shape at 50, the men who had three or fewer protective factors were three times as likely to be dead at 80 as those with four or more factors.
This jibes with what I’ve read in the other books and studies on this subject – things like exercise and eating healthy are not recommended solely to help you live longer. They help you live better. In the long run, they’ll make you happier.
So, in response to those of us who make claims such as, “I’d rather live 60 years of happiness that involves smoking/drinking/various drugs/junk food/etc rather than 80 years of denying myself these pleasures”… you are incorrect. The temporary happiness gained from your vices turns into a negative after a while. Good lesson. (By the way, I realize there is a massive gray area here, and I’ll fully admit to loving alcohol and the occasional smoke, but I still think this is a worthy concept to remember and pass on.)
Regular exercise in college predicted late-life mental health better than it did physical health.
I’ve heard this opinion – that exercise is just as helpful for mental health as it is physical – before, and it’s nice to know such a thing has actually been proven to be true. All the more reason to exercise. Which I hate with a passion, by the way.
Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned in my happiness research, and one that has remained a constant through every theory, study and fact:
Vaillant’s other main interest is the power of relationships. “It is social aptitude,” he writes, “not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.” Warm connections are necessary-and if not found in a mother or father, they can come from siblings, uncles, friends, mentors. The men’s relationships at age 47, he found, predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable, except defenses. … In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”
Money does not make you happy. Relationships make you happy, and they are all that matters. Money does not make you happy. Repeat like that a mantra. Don’t forget it.
An interesting snippet that reiterates what I’ve heard before about no one really respecting Freud’s theories anymore, and why happiness is such a hard thing to embrace:
As Freud was displaced by biological psychiatry and cognitive psychology-and the massive data sets and double-blind trials that became the industry standard-Vaillant’s work risked obsolescence. But in the late 1990s, a tide called “positive psychology” came in, and lifted his boat. Driven by a savvy, brilliant psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania named Martin Seligman, the movement to create a scientific study of the good life has spread wildly through academia and popular culture (dozens of books, a cover story in Time, attention from Oprah, etc.).
Vaillant became a kind of godfather to the field, and a champion of its message that psychology can improve ordinary lives, not just treat disease. But in many ways, his role in the movement is as provocateur. Last October, I watched him give a lecture to Seligman’s graduate students on the power of positive emotions-awe, love, compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, joy, hope, and trust (or faith). “The happiness books say, ‘Try happiness. You’ll like it a lot more than misery’-which is perfectly true,” he told them. But why, he asked, do people tell psychologists they’d cross the street to avoid someone who had given them a compliment the previous day?
In fact, Vaillant went on, positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs-protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections-but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.
To illustrate his point, he told a story about one of his “prize” Grant Study men, a doctor and well-loved husband. “On his 70th birthday,” Vaillant said, “when he retired from the faculty of medicine, his wife got hold of his patient list and secretly wrote to many of his longest-running patients, ‘Would you write a letter of appreciation?’ And back came 100 single-spaced, desperately loving letters-often with pictures attached. And she put them in a lovely presentation box covered with Thai silk, and gave it to him.” Eight years later, Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box down from his shelf. “George, I don’t know what you’re going to make of this,” the man said, as he began to cry, “but I’ve never read it.” “It’s very hard,” Vaillant said, “for most of us to tolerate being loved.”
I won’t even attempt to conclude this post by reviewing the many things I’ve learned about how to be happy. I don’t even know if a conscious effort at happiness works. I will say that almost everyone with any knowledge on the subject agrees this is the path to take: relationships matter most, money matters very little, envy is poison and we should strive to reward effort over results. Do that, and chances are you will be well on your way to a life of happiness.