November 9, 2012

“What Makes Us Happy” by Joshua Wolf Shenk

Dr. George Vaillant (via)

An absolutely fascinating, thoughtful and thought-provoking, nuanced piece in the Atlantic:  What Makes Us Happy” by Joshua Wolf Shenk. It was published in 2009 but I just came across it thanks to the wonderful Byliner.

Shenk reports on one of the longest running longitudinal studies in the United States, the Grant Study, named after its initial benefactor W.T. Grant. It is a study of 268 Harvard men, began in 1937, that would “attempt to analyze the forces that have produced normal young men.”  They are anonymous, though JFK and Ben Bradlee were two of them. 

There are so many fascinating things about this study, and Shenk does an amazing job of following the threads and illuminating the complexity of it all.  For example, he investigates the psychological complexity of the study’s long-term director Dr. George Vaillant.  Of course I would encourage you to go read the whole thing yourself ~ or like me, print it out and read and reread it. 

I love the fact that Vaillant uses pseudonyms for the subjects that are literary references ~ names like Bill Lomen and Alan Poe ~ and this: “Above his desk hangs a letter from a group of his medical residents to their successors, advising them to prepare for Vaillant’s ‘obscure literary references’ by reading Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.”

I could go on and on, but instead I just wanted to highlight the findings ~ what Dr. Vaillant suggests are contributing factors of happiness.  From the article:

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).
In contrast to Anna Freud, who located the origins of defenses in the sexual conflicts of a child, Vaillant sees adaptations as arising organically from the pain of experience and playing out through the whole lifespan. Take his comparison of two Grant Study men, whom he named “David Goodhart” and “Carlton Tarrytown” in his first book on the study, Adaptation to Life, published in 1977. Both men grew up fearful and lonely. Goodhart was raised in a blue-collar family, had a bigoted, alcoholic father, and a mother he described as “very nervous, irritable, anxious, and a worrier.” Tarrytown was richer, and was raised in a wealthy suburb, but he also had an alcoholic father, and his mother was so depressed that he feared she would commit suicide. Goodhart went on to become a national leader on civil-rights issues—a master, Vaillant argued, of the “mature” defenses of sublimation and altruism. By his late 40s, staff researchers using independent ratings put Goodhart in the top fifth of the Grant Study in psychological adjustment. Tarrytown, meanwhile, was in the bottom fifth. A doctor who left a regular practice to work for the state, a three-time divorcé who anesthetized his pain with alcohol and sedatives, Tarrytown was, Vaillant said, a user of dissociation and projection—“neurotic” and “immature” defenses, respectively. After a relapse into drug abuse, Tarrytown killed himself at 53. Goodhart lived to 70. Though Vaillant says that the “dashing major” of midlife became a stolid and portly brigadier general, Goodhart’s obituaries still celebrated a hero of civil rights.

And so this hierarchy of adaptations is how we deal with our world and shows how healthy are reactions are to it.  I’ve heard other studies and approaches that mirror these findings in different ways ~ Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs, Shann Ray’s ideas based on Jung about writing from places of darkness and light, and more.

One of the things I love about this is that it shows I’ve come a long way with my adaptations but that I also have a ways to go.  My adaptations are healthy to mature.  Not that I don’t sometimes lapse (like when the cat wakes me up yowling at 3:30 in the morning and then my back goes out as I’m stretching, as happened this morning - my adaptations were somewhat less mature).  But I think it’s the journey that’s important and so I feel like I’m making progress but still striving. A good place to be. Writing is my saving grace.

Here are some other things that make a different, the study says:

What allows people to work, and love, as they grow old? By the time the Grant Study men had entered retirement, Vaillant, who had then been following them for a quarter century, had identified seven major factors that predict healthy aging, both physically and psychologically.
Employing mature adaptations was one. The others were education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, and healthy weight. 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.
What factors don’t matter? Vaillant identified some surprises. Cholesterol levels at age 50 have nothing to do with health in old age. While social ease correlates highly with good psychosocial adjustment in college and early adulthood, its significance diminishes over time. The predictive importance of childhood temperament also diminishes over time: shy, anxious kids tend to do poorly in young adulthood, but by age 70, are just as likely as the outgoing kids to be “happy-well.” Vaillant sums up: “If you follow lives long enough, the risk factors for healthy life adjustment change. There is an age to watch your cholesterol and an age to ignore it.”
The study has yielded some additional subtle surprises. Regular exercise in college predicted late-life mental health better than it did physical health. And depression turned out to be a major drain on physical health: of the men who were diagnosed with depression by age 50, more than 70 percent had died or were chronically ill by 63. More broadly, pessimists seemed to suffer physically in comparison with optimists, perhaps because they’re less likely to connect with others or care for themselves.
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. Good sibling relationships seem especially powerful: 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger. 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.”

So, in additional mature adaptations, it’s “all the things you learned in kindergarten.”  Eat well, exercise, do unto others what you would have done unto you.

It’s comforting to find that everything you thought was true is borne out.

2 comments:

"As We Speak" said...

Needless to say, I will have to read this more than once. Very, very interesting and informative.
Thanks for posting.

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Tamara said...

Isn't it, though? As you say, reading and rereading. :-)

Thanks for stopping by!