What Makes Us Happy?
May 12, 2009 8:23 AM   Subscribe

Is there a formula—some mix of love, work, and psychological adaptation—for a good life? For 72 years, researchers at Harvard have been examining this question, following 268 men who entered college in the late 1930s through war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and old age. Here, for the first time, a journalist gains access to the archive of one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history. What Makes Us Happy?
posted by allkindsoftime (57 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite

 
To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.
posted by Joe Beese at 8:38 AM on May 12, 2009 [22 favorites]


The secret to happiness is to be a college-educated male in the US born in the 1930s. Damn that control set!
posted by DU at 8:40 AM on May 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


Fascinating article. I know there's plenty of evidence linking physical exercise to mental health, but this particular study seems to really demonstrate that.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:50 AM on May 12, 2009


Money helps.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 8:55 AM on May 12, 2009


Sunshine on my shoulder.
posted by punkfloyd at 8:55 AM on May 12, 2009


Dude that's like 4 pages. Sure I want to know the secret to lifelong happiness, but I am not sure I want it 4 pages worth. Can you hit me with the bullet points?
posted by ND¢ at 9:02 AM on May 12, 2009 [7 favorites]


To go to college in the 1930s? Does being a WASP qualify as a precondition to happiness?
posted by mrmojoflying at 9:02 AM on May 12, 2009


PLO CHOPS.

Make you happy.
posted by Mister_A at 9:03 AM on May 12, 2009


Ernest Borgnine's answer (audio mildly NSFW).
posted by zippy at 9:03 AM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Q:What makes us happy?
A: Obsessively asking this question over and over and over again.
posted by naju at 9:04 AM on May 12, 2009


Going to Harvard.
posted by klangklangston at 9:05 AM on May 12, 2009


Money helps.

One thing this and other studies have shown is that, No, money doesn't really help. Not beyond basic means.

I'd dispute this a point (I recently got a raise that translates to about $100 a week and it's nice to be able to buy books and re-instate my Netflix subscription), but large sums of cash tend to do very little for personal happiness.
posted by GilloD at 9:06 AM on May 12, 2009


The secret to happiness is to be a college-educated male in the US born in the 1930s.
Does being a WASP qualify as a precondition to happiness?

RTFAOSTFU
posted by ook at 9:07 AM on May 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


The absence of desire.
posted by porpoise at 9:09 AM on May 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


Other peoples' misery.
posted by Christ, what an asshole at 9:10 AM on May 12, 2009


"...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.”

Yeah.
posted by MrVisible at 9:10 AM on May 12, 2009


I was about to post this--but I would have added a via link to reddit before taking it right off their front page.
posted by nasreddin at 9:13 AM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


The secret to happiness is to be a college-educated male in the US born in the 1930s. Damn that control set!

I know you want to be one of the first posters, DU, but take time to read the article.

Vaillant also dramatically expanded his scope by taking over a defunct study of juvenile delinquents in inner-city Boston, run by the criminologists Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck. Launched in 1939, the study had a control group of nondelinquent boys who grew up in similar circumstances—children of poor, mostly foreign-born parents, about half of whom lived in a home without a tub or a shower. In the 1970s, Vaillant and his staff tracked down most of these nondelinquent boys—it took years—so that today the Harvard Study of Adult Development consists of two cohorts, the “Grant men” and the “Glueck men.” Vaillant also arranged to interview a group of women from the legendary Stanford Terman study, which in the 1920s began to follow a group of high-IQ kids in California.
posted by vacapinta at 9:13 AM on May 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


This is awesome. Thanks so much for the post.
posted by Pecinpah at 9:15 AM on May 12, 2009


The secret to happiness: Not ending up like your parents.
(Unless they were happy; then do your best to end up like them.)
posted by pointless_incessant_barking at 9:17 AM on May 12, 2009


Still just dudes though. But then women..everyone knows what makes them happy---pleasin' their man and havin' babies!

/pointless feminist snark

As for money, it won't make you happy, but lack of it can dramatically increase your unhappiness. Or at least your anxiety.
posted by emjaybee at 9:18 AM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


GilloD: One thing this and other studies have shown is that, No, money doesn't really help.

"Vaillant also dramatically expanded his scope by taking over a defunct study of juvenile delinquents in inner-city Boston, run by the criminologists Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck. Launched in 1939, the study had a control group of nondelinquent boys who grew up in similar circumstances—children of poor, mostly foreign-born parents, about half of whom lived in a home without a tub or a shower. In the 1970s, Vaillant and his staff tracked down most of these nondelinquent boys—it took years—so that today the Harvard Study of Adult Development consists of two cohorts, the “Grant men” and the “Glueck men.”


So Vaillant selects a "non-delinquent" (whatever that means) group of poor folks for his study and measures them against Ivy Leaguers. They wind up dead an average of 10 years earlier, but show no difference in happiness. First, it's a biased selection and second, being mostly first generation children of immigrants they might have had cultural reasons for a different answer of what "happiness" is. At least they weren't digging peat back in the Old Sod. This study does not disprove a money-happiness link.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 9:19 AM on May 12, 2009


Oh crap, didn't read

Vaillant also arranged to interview a group of women from the legendary Stanford Terman study, which in the 1920s began to follow a group of high-IQ kids in California.

/hangs head in shame. Reads TMFA.
posted by emjaybee at 9:19 AM on May 12, 2009


This article was fascinating. Shame on all the snark above from folks who didn't bother to read it. It's incredibly difficult to do longitudinal studies of people's lives, as the article explains well. You need a set of people, and to keep track of those people, and you need long-term funding and a succession of researchers to manage the study. Getting 70 years of mental and physical health data about anyone is impressive; doing it in a controlled study is really incredible.

The article doesn't go into this much, but I'm curious about the mechanisms they use to quantify "happiness" and other psychological traits. There's simple measurements (rating happiness on a three point scale, etc), but the study is so rich with detail that I'd think the qualitative assessment is the more valuable part.

Fascinating that JFK was in the study. They mentioned the file will be sealed until 2040; does it become part of a presidential archive then?
posted by Nelson at 9:21 AM on May 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


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....“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.”... He added, “I’m not a model of adult development.”

Vaillant’s confession reminded me of a poignant lesson from his work—that seeing a defense is easier than changing it. Only with patience and tenderness might a person surrender his barbed armor for a softer shield. Perhaps in this, I thought, lies the key to the good life—not rules to follow, nor problems to avoid, but an engaged humility, an earnest acceptance of life’s pains and promises. In his efforts to manifest this spirit, George Vaillant is, if not a model, then certainly a practiced guide.
The Reader's Digest Condensed Version, and pretty good stuff too. Nice post.
posted by caddis at 9:31 AM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Their lives were too human for science, too beautiful for numbers, too sad for diagnosis and too immortal for bound journals."

The article corresponds well with my experience; people are fascinating to explore, too complex to really understand, and you can never really tell how they'll end up. While it's interesting to examine human lives through the lens of science, at the end of the day, life is art.
posted by MrVisible at 9:32 AM on May 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


Other peoples' misery.
posted by Christ, what an asshole at 5:10 PM on May 12 [+] [!]


Eponysterical!

My answer is: Being somebody else.

I'm gonna go read the article now.
posted by WalterMitty at 9:38 AM on May 12, 2009


Oh, and for all the young nerds feeling oppressed by the cool kids on campus - 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.” That pretty much encompasses a lot of us here on MeFi.
posted by caddis at 9:40 AM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Eating bacon while playing the banjo usually works for me.
posted by davelog at 9:42 AM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


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.”

In contrast to the Grant data, the Glueck study data suggested that industriousness in childhood—as indicated by such things as whether the boys had part-time jobs, took on chores, or joined school clubs or sports teams—predicted adult mental health better than any other factor, including family cohesion and warm maternal relationships. “What we do,” Vaillant concluded, “affects how we feel just as much as how we feel affects what we do.”

But why do countries with the highest self-reports of subjective well-being also yield the most suicides? How is it that children are often found to be a source of “negative affect” (sadness, anger)—yet people identify children as their greatest source of pleasure?


Lots of contradictions in this study (as there are in people, and in life). Fascinating reading.
posted by misha at 9:42 AM on May 12, 2009


What a great article. Nothing to add but thanks for the link.

Oh yes, and thanks for the knawing lurking dread that my inadequate breadth and depth of friendships will make me a miserable sick bastard in my old age.

Thanks so much.
posted by Shepherd at 9:51 AM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Great article, thank you for sharing it.
posted by one_bean at 9:52 AM on May 12, 2009


Wow. that's the most interesting thing that I've read in a long time. It would be very weird to have all those younger versions of myself all logged and quantified in a database like that. As a 44 year old now, I'm not sure I want to read the thoughts of my 20 year old self, I'm sure that I was a smug and opinionated little jerk.
posted by octothorpe at 10:00 AM on May 12, 2009


The secret to happiness is to be a college-educated male in the US born in the 1930s.

and go to war and worry about getting your ass shot off a few years later

as fascinating as this article is, i wonder if the same things would hold for a person born in the 50s or one born in the 80s - different generations have different experiences and realities they must adjust to and what worked for one generation isn't necessarily going to work for the next
posted by pyramid termite at 10:09 AM on May 12, 2009


As a 44 year old now, I'm not sure I want to read the thoughts of my 20 year old self, I'm sure that I was a smug and opinionated little jerk.

This is one of the reasons I sometimes second-guess myself when it comes to blogging.
posted by allkindsoftime at 10:10 AM on May 12, 2009


Thanks for the link. This provided a lot of food for thought. It's funny to me how we go round and round about these questions and it always circles back to simple answers (i.e. its the relationships that matter, money doesn't buy happiness, etc.). I know I am awful at making these questions and answers far more complex than they really need to be and these kind of studies are good reminders of that.
posted by zennoshinjou at 10:50 AM on May 12, 2009


Oh yes, and thanks for the knawing lurking dread that my inadequate breadth and depth of friendships will make me a miserable sick bastard in my old age. [Emphasis mine.]

This neologism, evidently a combination of "knowing" and "gnawing", is one of the more evocative coinages I've seen on MetaFilter to date.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 10:53 AM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Great link. I'm surprised that I made it all the way through. I thought it was insightful and well written.

Perhaps they should have started new groups at some point in the past 70 years. Is there anything else like this going on or will this be done once all the 70yos are dead?
posted by daHIFI at 11:07 AM on May 12, 2009


and go to war and worry about getting your ass shot off a few years later

Yes, damn shame we've been experiencing 60 years of Pax Americana. Where oh where will we find a war to ship off to?

as fascinating as this article is, i wonder if the same things would hold for a person born in the 50s or one born in the 80s - different generations have different experiences and realities they must adjust to and what worked for one generation isn't necessarily going to work for the next

What in the article did you read as prescriptive for happiness that worked for this older generation that you do not think will work for other generations? Or, what is so different about the world today that you think humans are no longer what they were 50 years ago?
posted by one_bean at 11:09 AM on May 12, 2009


What in the article did you read as prescriptive for happiness that worked for this older generation that you do not think will work for other generations?

it seems to me that people are a bit more cynical and passive-aggressive than they used to be and they may be happier because of it, because things like that are rewarded more now than they were then

in any case, the assumption that a certain set of happiness strategies is good for all times and places isn't warranted
posted by pyramid termite at 11:25 AM on May 12, 2009


pt, did you read the article as your comments sound like you didn't?
posted by caddis at 11:56 AM on May 12, 2009


I'm not sure I want to read the thoughts of my 20 year old self, I'm sure that I was a smug and opinionated little jerk
Recently I tried to read an old travel journal of mine, written in 1991. I couldn't get through it, because I was such a smug and opinionated little jerk. (heh I was going to add "back then" to that sentence, but that presupposes that I am not longer a smug and opinionated little jerk)

Fascinating article
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:03 PM on May 12, 2009


...knawing...

This neologism, evidently a combination of "knowing" and "gnawing", is one of the more evocative coinages I've seen on MetaFilter to date.


Thanks! I wish it had been intentional.
posted by Shepherd at 12:11 PM on May 12, 2009


What in the article did you read as prescriptive for happiness that worked for this older generation that you do not think will work for other generations? Or, what is so different about the world today that you think humans are no longer what they were 50 years ago?

From the article:

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.


It's possible that those seven factors would still be defining aspects of physical and mental health in other generations, but certainly there have been fundamental changes in all of those areas since the study started. Smoking peaked to being almost ubiquitous before suffering from a backlash, for example, so who knows what the equivalent of lung cancer is for the generations born 20, 50, or 100 years later. Even something that seems timeless like the idea of a stable marriage being beneficial might be a lot different for someone growing up and having relationships these days rather than over the last century.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:17 PM on May 12, 2009


Thanks for the link. I thought this was a really interesting and well-written article.
posted by vibrotronica at 12:22 PM on May 12, 2009


Some of the best discoveries are happy accidents.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 12:24 PM on May 12, 2009


Nth-ing the compliments to the Atlantic writer. The thing which stood out to me is the tidbit about the Danes reporting themselves happiest, on surface being a glum bunch, and with a high suicide rate. The split personality of the article (was it an article about Vaillant or was it an article about Vaillant's study?) made it a challenging read. I immediately had to re-read the thing to figure out the deal with subject 47, and it took me three reads to untangle that Vaillant had sent subject 47 a copy of one of Vaillant's research reports.

I wonder if the weight of the topics handicapped my reading ability.
posted by bukvich at 12:45 PM on May 12, 2009


The subject of the article - the longitudinal studies - is indeed fascinating. For all that, the article itself is very disappointing, and ultimately, the studies are tragically flawed.

Initially I was quite put off by the space given to Vaillant - as bizarre as if a report on a TB study gave 50% of the space to a description of the life of the lead investigator... what is the bloody relevance?! Then I reminded myself that it's hardly science, rather a wooly-headed subdivision of a blurry field "psychology of happiness". What a mess. In that context, I suppose there is some relevance to having pages devoted to the lead investigator, given the dearth of hard data and surfeit of private musings. Did somebody say science? Not here.

The biggest scandal is contained in this paragraph:

"George Vaillant has not been just the principal reader of these novels. To a large extent, he is the author. He framed most of the questions; he conducted most of the interviews, which exist, not in recordings or transcripts, but only in his notes and interpretations. To explain the study, I needed to understand him, and how the themes from his life circled back to inform his work (and vice versa)."

I mean really. What is the worth of this dreck from such a patently unreliable source as Vaillant? I appreciate, that were it not for him, this study would've died a long time ago. That still does not justify the virtual destruction of its value by the "rescuer". It's rather like an archeologist who entirely through his own and self funded efforts uncovers immensely valuable documents, which he proceeds to distort - with no one having access to the originals (interviews which are not recorded, and the content of which we only know through his "notes and interpretations"). Pffft.

Yes, absolutely fascinating material - the original study. Pity that it found such a Baron Munchausen of a rescuer. What would have been infinitely more interesting would have been if a Studs Terkel was in the lead. Just give us the facts - the transcripts, the recordings, the unadorned data. Instead we have a fantastist with an axe (or several) to grind, drowning in loopy theories and valueless speculation.

Such great material, so poorly treated.
posted by VikingSword at 2:10 PM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Their lives were too human for science

That was the overwhelming feeling I had as I read the article; human lives and the attending emotions cannot be quantified. Brilliant person is happy and altruistic yet thought of as a "miserable bastard" by his friends. Charming over-achiever turns to drink and then commits suicide. Neurotic boy blooms into thoughtful psychiatrist who then becomes a severely depressed failure. It is good to step back from the cardboard stock characters that we surround ourselves with via TV, movies, and literature and remember that real humans lead messy, complex lives that defy categorizing.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 4:28 PM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Loose shoes, tight pussy and a warm place to shit -- that's it!
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:23 PM on May 12, 2009


pt, did you read the article as your comments sound like you didn't?

i not only read it, i thought about it
posted by pyramid termite at 8:34 PM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


I would like a happiness research to generate a pie-chart that instructs me how to allocate my time in order to achieve maximum happiness. For each decade of my life, preferably.
posted by munyeca at 10:53 PM on May 12, 2009


I am not buying that pt. If true then your prior comment completely missed the central theme of the study/article that the important thing is one's reaction to the outside world, not the outside world's reaction to one. My impression is that you are hardly lacking in astuteness, therefore I think you are commenting on the subject line of the post rather than on the content. Well, anyway, this line of thought is pointless.......
posted by caddis at 11:18 PM on May 12, 2009


VikingSword- have to disagree with your dislike of the emphasis on Vaillant. It seems to me that the criteria of happiness is a construct created by Vaillant (or absorbed from the culture he grew up in). In such a respect then acknowledging his biases, his idea of a happy life, his idea of valid coping strategies etc. is surely integral to understanding the study. Seems to me that it is impossible to define happiness without introducing subjectivity so it is essential to consider the filter it comes through- which ultimately is Vaillant with all his baggage.
posted by Gratishades at 2:31 AM on May 13, 2009


Gratishades, I may have not been clear enough - as I said, I disliked the emphasis on Vaillant only initially; subsequently, I recognized that the disastrous state of the study interpretation left no recourse other than a parallel examination of Vaillant, so my dislike was subsumed by my general disgust with the methodology employed.

I disagree that "it is impossible to define happiness without introducing subjectivity." Surely, if not at present, then at some point in the future, neuroscience will have progressed far enough to be able to objectively measure a brain state that is identified as "experiencing happiness" (just as they are able to already today measure when pleasure centers are being aroused), and eventually do so remotely and longitudinally.

That however is not the issue - the issue is that perhaps the simplest measure of happiness that we have at present is entirely reliant on self-reporting. If you want to know if a man is happy - you ask him; that's more reliable than someone observing him and making that assessment on his behalf.

That being so, Vaillant has failed at the most fundamental level - he did not faithfully transmit the self-reports (note the paragraph I emphasized in my previous post). Instead, he reported them based on his interpretation - not on transcripts and recordings of the answers. Thus, we do not know what the people in question actually said, nor if Vaillants interpretations were even accurate, never mind valid. That is a failure of the first order for a researcher - adulterating the raw data. The secondary failure - the nature of his loopy theories and their validity is a separate issue and a separate failure.

The bottom line is that with Vaillant at the helm of this, and without access to the raw data, I find the study to be of virtually zero value. Hence, deeply disappointing (given how interesting the subject matter is).
posted by VikingSword at 1:02 PM on May 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


that is a beautiful article, and a beautiful study.

it may not be "proper" science, but that does not mean there aren't things that can be learned from it.

maybe the next equivalent study will be less subjective, more scientific. but i doubt that reading about it will move me to tears.
posted by fay at 2:31 PM on May 13, 2009


Fascinating that JFK was in the study. They mentioned the file will be sealed until 2040; does it become part of a presidential archive then

Dibs on posting it to Mefi.

Great article.
posted by minifigs at 8:01 AM on May 14, 2009


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