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.