George Vaillant has been overseeing a longitudinal study of men's lives for more than 40 years. The study focuses on the personal and professional lives of men selected in the late 1930's, and its participants include luminaries like John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradlee (editor of The Washington Post), along with 266 less well-known men. Vaillant has come to a conclusion after four decades of observing these men's lives: "Happiness is love. Full Stop."
In an Atlantic article released today entitled What Makes Us Happy?, Joshua Wolf Shenk discusses the Harvard Study of Adult Development -- and its director -- in awesome detail. It's full of case studies of men who have been followed since childhood, many now in old age or dead. What were their lives like? What were the common threads that lead to happiness or despair? You have to read this. Here's a snippet from the piece:
...As Vaillant points out, longitudinal studies, like wines, improve with age. And as the Grant Study men entered middle age--they spent their 40s in the 1960s--many achieved dramatic success. Four members of the sample ran for the U.S. Senate. One served in a presidential Cabinet, and one was president. There was a best-selling novelist (not, Vaillant has revealed, Norman Mailer, Harvard class of '43). But hidden amid the shimmering successes were darker hues. As early as 1948, 20 members of the group displayed severe psychiatric difficulties. By age 50, almost a third of the men had at one time or another met Vaillant's criteria for mental illness. Underneath the tweed jackets of these Harvard elites beat troubled hearts. Arlie Bock didn't get it. "They were normal when I picked them," he told Vaillant in the 1960s. "It must have been the psychiatrists who screwed them up."
...Most psychology preoccupies itself with mapping the heavens of health in sharp contrast to the underworld of illness. "Social anxiety disorder" is distinguished from shyness. Depression is defined as errors in cognition. Vaillant's work, in contrast, creates a refreshing conversation about health and illness as weather patterns in a common space. "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."
Read the rest for a detailed look at the complex lives of several hundred Harvard men.