The Complexity of Happiness

Joshua Wolf Stenk’s Atlantic essay on George Vaillant and the Harvard Study of Adult Development is terrific. There’s lots to say about it (e.g., Why don’t we have more longitudinal studies like this? How representative are a bunch of Greatest Generation Harvardian men, really? etc.) But I just wanted to highlight this bit on Valliant’s take on current happiness research.

Last October, I watched him give a lecture to [positive psychology guru Martin] 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.

[…]

When Vaillant told me he was going to speak to Seligman’s class, he said his message would be from William Blake: “Joy and woe are woven fine.” Earlier in his career, he would use such occasions to demonstrate, with stories and data, the bright side of pain—how adaptations can allow us to turn dross into gold. Now he articulates the dark side of pleasure and connection—or, at least, the way that our most profound yearnings can arise from our most basic fears.

There’s a lot of good stuff on happiness research in the ellipsis, but I just wanted to draw out this main point. The essay is full of fascinating illustrations of the point from the lives of the men the Harvard study has followed.

Also extremely important:

“It is social aptitude,” [Vaillant] 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.”

What I liked so much about this essay, and about Vaillant, is the recognition that the complexity of human psychology, the complexity of coping and adapting to the challenges life throws up, makes relationships or “social aptitude” no simple thing. Vaillant points out that even the most “mature” strategies for adapting to disappointment, injury, or failure can strain our most intimate, sustaining relationships. And the reality of relationships over time tends to call for defenses that can threaten relationships. A positive, outgoing person may love freely and easily, but then become shattered by betrayal. Then what do you do? Steel yourself for the possibility of future pain by keeping some part of yourself private and out of the way? But then what have you done to your capacity to be nourished by intimacy and love? A lifetime of  rich relationships is not easy and therefore neither is the best kind of life.

Advertisements

16 thoughts on “The Complexity of Happiness

  1. Montaigne touches on in one of his essays. He argues that people find a great deal of pleasure in sadness and pain.

  2. Pingback: Gratitude Watch - 2009-05-12 — The Meaning of Existence (and all that)

  3. “But I just wanted to highlight this bit on Valliant’s take on current happiness research.” I read this as “Valiant” initially.I actually rather liked your typo, since it is apparent to me from the (limited) articles I've read on happiness, any research related to this topic incites debate from all sides, and I imagine one does have to be quite “valiant” to undertake it.

  4. Great post and article. Of course correlation is not causation (perhaps happiness causes social ties, more likely they are mutually reinforcing). Likely the study accounts for this in some way, haven't looked yet. Either way, excellent food for thought.

  5. This is bad bayesian statistics: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. I'm sure there is a significant result there, but this is not how you would point it out.

  6. Loved the article. Makes you pause. Some interesting facts on Mr. Vaillant which point to why he is so immersed in the study. Now I want to know more.

  7. Pingback: Not to Worry, We’re All Crazy « William’s Continued Adventures

  8. Pingback: Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy « Around The Sphere

  9. Nice article, nice summary. But we could read that stuff anywhere. Want we want to know is, what does happiness research say about libertarianism?Fundamentally, the quality I derive from my life heavily depends upon my early relationships with my siblings? You mean, those guys I never chose to associate with, but rather were forced upon me? The jerks who borrowed my clothes and stuff, and poked their nose into my most intimate business? THOSE people? I rely on autonomy rights to provide barriers against other people taking value from me. But in order to actually mount and defend such rights, I end up taking value from myself? Really?You’re an insightful guy, Will. But as a libertarian, you suck.

  10. Maybe I am person who thinks there is more to life than political ideology and who therefore doesn't want to blog about politics all the time. Anyway, what does the fact that our relationships matter a great deal to our satisfaction in life (and it is a fact) have to do with libertarianism? Nothing much. In any case, you're quite welcome to read my very long Cato paper on the policy implications of happiness research: http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=8179Enjoy!

  11. Apostate! Blasphemer! Complex, well-rounded individual! Stone him! Stone him! (Can I at least stereotype you enough to assume you support legalizing getting stoned?)You’ve apparently given this topic some thought; thanks or the link.

  12. Pingback: Finding happiness in the saddest thing « A Fistful of Science

  13. What I disliked about this piece was the “moralistic” tone it used when discussing the value of relationships. It's not clear to me why we human beings find relationships to be such a strong source of value (and I do, like everyone else, but it's not a necessary truth). I think the way a study should approach something like the value of relationships to human flourishing is just to treat it like it's any other desire. What frustrates me about the piece is the value statement that's hidden there. “All that matters to human flourishing is the quality of our relationships, and isn't that great!” is the sense I got.

  14. It's interesting to look at the orientation of the comments work like this study draws. The people responding online in no way constitute an unbiased sample, and I don't intend for my observation to be viewed as any kind of science… but it is so clear in viewing the responses why there are unfulfilled, and/or unhappy people in society. It's not a new concept, that supportive and loving friends and family relationships are what matters most in one's life when it is all said and done (Christ tried to pass that little nugget along to us). But the emotionally immature, inward looking, and anti-social individual is more prevalent today than ever as a result of the isolating effect of increased wealth. And those people are so absolutely obvious (and oblivious), the need to conduct such research to remind us of the simple answer to the question: What's important in life? is clear.

  15. It's interesting to look at the orientation of the comments work like this study draws. The people responding online in no way constitute an unbiased sample, and I don't intend for my observation to be viewed as any kind of science… but it is so clear in viewing the responses why there are unfulfilled, and/or unhappy people in society. It's not a new concept, that supportive and loving friends and family relationships are what matters most in one's life when it is all said and done (Christ tried to pass that little nugget along to us). But the emotionally immature, inward looking, and anti-social individual is more prevalent today than ever as a result of the isolating effect of increased wealth. And those people are so absolutely obvious (and oblivious), the need to conduct such research to remind us of the simple answer to the question: What's important in life? is clear.

Comments are closed.