What Makes Us Happy?

All we need is love…

Lyrics and Music by Lennon & McCartney

In the June 2009 issue of The Atlantic online, Joshua Wolf Shenk looks at the issue of “What Makes Us Happy?” This is no new-age, crystal-based, aromatherapy-scented review of superficial meaning-of-life issues (not that The Atlantic would ever stoop to that level). Rather, this is an article that examines a 72 year Harvard longitudinal study of 268 men that started in 1937 which included among its participants, President John Kennedy. The article is also an exploration of psychiatrist George Vaillant who has been “the chief curator of these lives, the chief investigator of their experiences, and the chief analyst of their lessons.”

The lives of the men in question weave thru the Atlantic article and lend an eerie voyeuristic-looking-back-from-the-great-beyond quality to them. The study documents their successes, failures, depressions, suicides, accidents and all the twists-and-turns that life throws at people.

What has George Vaillant learned from examination of these lives? “It is social aptitude,” he writes, “not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.”

Joshua Shenk states: ‘His [George Vaillant’s] 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.’

The study appears to indicate that one of the most important factors in happiness is not whether we have encountered difficulties, but rather how we handled those difficulties in life. Valliant calls those responses “adaptations”:

‘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).’

The good news is that there appears to be hope for the rest of us as adaptations appear to be able to be learned or acquired over time. We should be able to adapt to be happy.

Vaillant 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.’ Knowing these factors allows us to start making positive changes as we all inevitably get older.

There is another conclusion from the study that seems particularly apt: despite our society’s focus on material things, in the final analysis, “[T]he only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” Accordingly, lawyers would be wise to turn off the computer and head home rather than putting in one more billable hour in their day, since that hour invested with your spouse will be worth far more than one more billable hour over the long term. Or as Lennon & McCartney musically put it: All you need is love. Hat tip to Laura Calloway of the Alabama State Bar for drawing this article to my attention.

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