Showing posts with label life's challenges. Show all posts
Showing posts with label life's challenges. Show all posts

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.

October 24, 2012

Climbing Up and Out

In the 80s, there was this great HBO comedy special called the Kathy and Mo Show.  It was absolutely hilarious.  Absolutely.  You don’t hear much about it, but it sticks in my mind as a watershed moment not only in comedy but also in women’s rights.  They were saying things that people only thought, that I only thought. It was put on by Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney. 

One skit had no dialog.  It was Mo pantomiming a woman getting dressed in the morning.  Hilarious. Another, which I’ve put below, was two angels figuring out how to have humans reproduce.  But one that sticks in my mind is a typical bar scene.  Kathy plays a drunk and Mo plays a bouncy cocktail waitress.  There’s some funny banter, but then Mo looks at the camera and talks about how awful the life of a waitress is.  She says something like, “It’s the goddamn shower.  Every day, I have to get up and take a shower, but I think, what’s the point.  Tomorrow, I’ll just have to take another goddamn shower.”

That’s exactly what I’ve been feeling lately.  Yep, depression, part of my long-cycle mild manic depression. I think I get it every year at this time. Which is funny because I love the fall.

The symptoms are that I am just so tired that I don’t feel up to doing anything or facing anything—whether it’s taking the kids to another event or even just returning an email from a friend. When I’m in that state, the emotional energy it takes to read an email and respond feels like too much, and I avoid my email and the internet and Facebook.  I get a little phobic about it.

Which doesn’t mean I don’t get things done.  In fact, I’ve been busier than ever.  I love my day job, and it’s a great place to work, but I simply haven’t been able to keep up lately.  I have so many small things to do that the big things, like writing longer pieces, keeps getting shoved back until I feel overwhelmed with the big things I HAVE to get done.  So I have to shut my cube door to get one big thing done and then all the little things pile up.  Emails asking for this and that, oh, and that thing I asked for last week.

And then the ranch part of me says, just get a grip.  What are you whining for?  I watched a great documentary over the weekend called The Boy Mir.  It was done by the British filmmaker Phil Grabsky, and I watched it via this fabulous new service called Fandor. (I’m sure I’ll be talking about it more.) It’s this amazing 10-year look at a little boy who grows to a man in rural Afghanistan.  One of the many things that strikes me is, once again, what in the world do I have to complain about, for heaven’s sake?

And I haven’t been getting a lick of my own writing done.  Lots of work writing, but no personal writing.  Obviously not even this blog.  And I’ve been behind on posting my own photos.  My creative facility has just been tapped out. I’ve had nothing left.

But I’m feeling better now.  As you can see.  Climbing up and out.  So, hey, hi.

And, without further ado, the incomparable Kathy and Mo.

September 28, 2012

The Eternal Question


My kids are taking karate.  They really enjoy it.  My son enjoyed it the first day but then was afraid he’d have to stand in front of the class and bow and so stopped for a bit.  Then he decided he wanted to do it again.

Wednesday night, they were doing their thing on the floor, in lines kicking and punching and kiai-ing, and I was sitting on the floor along the sidelines reading.  I glance up periodically to see how their doing, but generally I’m engrossed in my book.

This is different from when they were younger.  When they first were in sports ~ gymnastics, soccer ~ I would sit and watch them the whole time, sometimes proudly watching what they were accomplishing and other times cringing at them not paying attention or some other thing.  I don’t think I’m the only parent who has done this. 

I’m still fascinated by what they do, but now sometimes it’s the only little snippets of time I get to read ~ while they’re doing their thing.

So Wednesday I was particularly engrossed.  I’m reading the third book in the Song of Ice and Fire Series (A Storm of Swords) so I'm totally in.  Suddenly, someone loomed up in front of me.  I glanced up.  It was my daughter.

“Mommy,” she said.  “Why aren’t you watching us?”

“Cause I’m reading my book,” I said.  “Go back onto the floor.”

She hesitated and then went.

Well, isn’t that the eternal question, one of the most basic things of human nature:  Why aren’t they all watching us?  Cause they’re hoping we’re watching them.

September 19, 2012

Oooh, Veggies

Every Monday, I stop by the alley at the back of our local whole foods store a pick up a large crate of vegetables, a bag or two of fruit, a large loaf of bread, and a dozen eggs. They're delivered in beautiful sturdy plastic crates, but then I've developed a system where I transfer them all to a hefty box for transport home. You're of course not supposed to take the crates home.

This bounty comes from across Colorado. We belong to a CSA farm (community supported agriculture) that also gathers produce and other goods from around the state. So their eggs and veggies are from their farm but often their fruit is from another orchard and they get their bread from a local bakery. You can also get mushrooms and cheeses and other things.

CSA is a new model in farming. You pay a lump sum at the beginning of the year and then you get weekly deliveries of goodies. There are also winter shares where you can get one box every month of just winter veggies.

I both look forward and am a bit daunted by our weekly pickup. First of all, you don't get to choose your veggies. You have to eat what's in season, things you may not be familiar with, and it may be a lot of daikon radish or kale and how many recipes do you have on hand for kale? Well, I may not have, but now by god I have a lot. That's the thing. It can be a lot more time consuming because you have to plan and find recipes and cook a lot more from scratch. And believe me I'm just as busy as you are. I find that I cook a lot on weekends and freeze some.

But the thing is: I love to cook. So this forces me to make the time. Plus we're eating so much better, so many more veggies. You can't really justify stopping at the store for frozen pizza when you have a whole shelf of lucious greens and carrots and fresh tomatoes and home-made saurkraut. Tonight the kids happily ate salad (happily!) along with big meatballs I'd made from meat we get from our local university, in which the ag department sells meat. That loaf of crusty bread we get every week makes wonderful toast, which I take to work every day. I also take big salads or wonderful veggie stew from a whole bunch of different veggies. Did you know that radishes can be added to stew? Cabbage and kale and beets are very good in stew too.

But I have to admit there are times when I face the fridge and groan. What am I going to do with all this. Especially as we have a garden too ~ one that did quite well this year. Some goes to waste at times. But all I have to do is look up a new recipe and I'm off to the races.

August 24, 2012

Billie, Our Dog


We had to put our dog down yesterday. 

Billie was a 12-year-old Chessie (Cheasapeake Bay retriever).  She had severe arthritis in her hips, and the Rimadil wasn’t working any more ~ she couldn’t hardly get up by herself, regularly fell down, and sometimes needed help getting up a stair. But also she had swallowed some socks that had balled up in her stomach and blocked her eating ~ surgery wasn’t an option and we couldn’t get her to throw it up. She’d developed allergies or a fungal infection recently, as she’d begun to chew on herself, and she’d begun to do that thing old dogs do, wander around the house as if they were looking for something.

Billie came to us when she was two years old.  Well, the people we got her from said she was two years old ~ we think she was probably a skinny three or four.  (So she was probably older than 12.) We paid $200 for her, and they promised to send her papers but never did.  Interesting people.  There had been two or three families living in a tiny mobile home in Nebraska, along with a whole passel of dogs, and the wind had blown the roof off, at least that’s what they said.  So they’d moved to Laramie with the dogs to live with other family.

You could tell that Billie had had to compete for food.  Bullet ~ her name had been Bullet but we renamed her. (Billie is a name in my family.) She was a bit haunted and very thin, and when fed she was very protective.  She was also very obedient.  She stayed very close to your heel when out walking, and it was only around other dogs that she would get a bit more aggressive, but not too much. 

My husband would sometimes take her swimming in the river and then comb her out.  Big tufts of white blonde hair would mound like snowdrifts in the back yard.  She loved her treats, and so we would give her two biscuits and a pig’s ear every evening.

She was a quiet and introspective dog, and I think she worried about things.  I don’t know if she ever felt sure of her place in the world, even though we always loved her and treated her well.

I think we’re good dog owners.  We’re Cesar Millan-type people ~ dogs are happiest when they know their place in the pack. Our dogs aren’t spoiled but are treated consistently and kindly. We don’t feed them people food.  Our pets, though, are not at the center of our lives like they are with some people, and so if anything I regret that Billie did not get more attention.

Writing is the industry of memory, and I wanted to take one small moment to use my gift to fix in time one lovely little piece of the world. 

RIP, Billie the Chessie.

December 1, 2011

“Stand in Your Truth”

I recently read Suze Orman’s book The Money Class. I really like her no-nonsense practical approach to finance, and I particularly love her phrase, “Stand in your truth.” To me, it means quit lying to yourself, quit sabotaging your own success, and admit those places where you repeat the same mistakes over and over and over. I posted the phrase on my computer in big bold letters.

I’m trying to follow it in all areas of my life. With the whole eating well thing, I try to admit that actually I’m not hungry ~ I’m just bored or stressed or trying to deal with things. With money, simply avoiding the issue won’t get us anywhere. With emotions, don’t bury them, but work through them. Face it, face it all. Quit hoping it will go away and avoiding and deal with it.

So it was particularly interesting when I came across this yesterday at Lifehacker: “How to Identify and Learn from Your Mistakes.” I love how writer Scott Berkun breaks the types of mistakes we make into four types and then discusses how to deal with each one.

The four types are 1) stupid mistakes like stubbing your toe, 2) simple mistakes like running out of beer when you have more guests than you expect, 3) involved mistakes that are understandable but require effort to prevent such as regularly arriving at work late, and 4) complex mistakes like failed relationships.

Dealing with stupid and simple mistakes is easy. Just avoid them, if you can, but once in while it’s going to happen.

For involved mistakes, you need to make significant changes because these come from habit or from our very natures. It’s tough because it’s changing one habit for a new and better one ~ and we all know how hard it is to change our habits ~ or going against something we really want. These habits, too, are often things we’ve tried to fix in the past, so we feel guilty and like we’ve failed even before we’ve begun. But he makes a very valid point, which is that we often refuse to even acknowledge that we made a mistake. He suggests that we enlist the aid of someone else to help us change, and that we really take stock of our ability to change.

Complex mistakes are the most interesting, he says. You need patience and you often just make things worse if you don’t watch it. He suggests getting multiple outside perspectives on the problem ~ call in the experts, if you will. Then describe what happened, which helps you to clearly define the problem. Make sure you don’t jump to conclusions and do a thorough investigation and examine your own biases. Work backwards from the event, which will help you see contributing factors.

He ends with a reminder to have courage to admit things and face the problem and realize that mistakes are inevitable and you just need to learn from them. Also, try to bring a little humor to the situation ~ it’ll loosen you up and help you deal with it.

I found all this really helpful and in keeping with my “Stand in Your Truth” offensive. We’re all facing tough economic times, which brings up a lot of emotional stuff as well, and the better we can face it, the better we’ll do in the long run.

How are you dealing with economic challenges?