Tuesday, June 16, 2009


So, I fell off the edge of the World, and am now in Brooklyn. But, since I had to blog anyway to note that I'd run up again in an Overheard in New York Headline Contest, I thought I'd check in in a slightly more rural, salt of the Earth sort of way.

So, happiness, really, is the goal. Not the Todd Solondz movie, which while a fine movie is a terrible date movie, but the state of being which Bhutan purports to let drive its public policy. Here's the current conventional thinking:
[H]appiness scientists have come up with all kinds of straightforward, and actionable, findings: that money does little to make us happier once our basic needs are met; that marriage and faith lead to happiness (or it could be that happy people are more likely to be married and spiritual); that temperamental “set points” for happiness—a predisposition to stay at a certain level of happiness—account for a large, but not overwhelming, percentage of our well-being. (Fifty percent, says Sonja Lyubomirsky in The How of Happiness. Circumstances account for 10 percent, and the other 40 percent is within our control.)

That's pretty useful to know, but there was this astonishing latitudinal study done on JFK, former WaPo editor (and 'Vice President at large') Ben Bradlee and 266 other students from the Harvard classes of 1947, 48 and 49 (WW II vet age) and further informed by a group of poor Boston boys identified in 1937 and high IQ girls from 1920s California written up in the Atlantic Monthly this month.

It seems pretty 'sensitive dependence of initial conditions'-ish, but the article is about a study which originally sought to make prescriptive statements about happiness. I'm going to allow the possibility that stuff that happens to one can have an effect. But, the article suggests a lot to watch out for. It's also fun to read, and has a lot about the study's current steward, George Vaillant, who in his most recent book suggests faith in God is essential to happiness -- I've come to believe this myself, so he's already winning me over.

I do recommend you read the whole thing, but here's the money graf:
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.”
Let's make this about me. I'm 41. I'm educated, I don't smoke, I exercise some. That's three. Eh, abusing alcohol. There doesn't seem to be any level that's really good for you([A]lcoholism... is probably the horse, and not the cart, of pathology.), so I don't know where abusing starts. I've been married less than three months. It seems pretty stable, but it's where it is in nine years that matters, apparently. Assuming I... or, you know, we can nail that down, I've either got to stop drinking or get to a healthy weight. Or, I could get into these 'mature adaptations,' so let's look at what they are.

The article mentions
  • 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)
I feel like I'm doing pretty good on those, so I guess I can stop worrying about obesity.

This is another bit I love:
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.
I am always counseling people to open themselves up to emotional pain, to stay vulnerable in the face of the terrors of others, for some abstract payoff. It's nice to have Science on my side. There's more great relationship advice.
"On the bright side... reaction formation allows us to care for someone else when we wish to be cared for ourselves.” But in intimate relationships... the defense “rarely leads to happiness for either party."
Maybe I'm just hearing what I want to hear, but it sounds like emotional reactions have to be pretty carefully managed.
Regular exercise in college predicted late-life mental health better than it did physical health.
That's not good. Maybe some of you who went to college with me can help me out, but as I recall it, I quite running when I was 19 because it interfered with my smoking, and that's pretty much where things stood for five years. I can't be expected to remember myself, because...
[O]lder people tend to remember fewer distressing images (like snakes) and more pleasant ones (like Ferris wheels) than younger people. By giving a profound shape to aging, this tendency can make for a softer, rounder old age, but also a deluded one.


nephos said...

Crap. I'm screwed by the faith part, unless having faith in ability of several beers to lift my spirits counts. But that's abuse of alcohol, so seems a person can't win.

I guess the one bright spot is that happiness will not necessarily decline as global warming and economic collapse kick in.

mark said...

happiness? know thy place. or know thy place and find a way around it.

no others.