I want, I get. . . I get ill

Sep
11
2015
by
Lynne McTaggart
/
0
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I am fascinated by ideas of what constitutes the good life. In the West our idea of lasting happiness and fulfilment is all about living the dream: the large income, the lovely house, the devoted partner and children, at least two cars in the garage, a couple of holidays a year in the sun. As we’re told in many popular manifestoes about manifestation and the Law of Attraction, what you want, you can get. It’s that easy.

So I started to research what exactly happens to those living the dream, in those terms.

I am fascinated by ideas of what constitutes the good life. In the West our idea of lasting happiness and fulfilment is all about living the dream: the large income, the lovely house, the devoted partner and children, at least two cars in the garage, a couple of holidays a year in the sun. As we’re told in many popular manifestoes about manifestation and the Law of Attraction, what you want, you can get. It’s that easy.

So I started to research what exactly happens to those living the dream, in those terms.

Best and brightest

In the late 1930s, Arlie Bock, director of health services at Harvard University at the time, backed by department-store magnate named W. T. Grant, conceived of the idea of taking the best and brightest from Harvard and studying them over time to determine which qualities in a person are most likely to make for lasting happiness. Besides satisfying his own curiosity Bock had big ambitions for his data, from which he promised to fashion a blueprint for “easing disharmony in the world.”

Bock and his colleagues, from an impressive array of disciplines, from medicine to psychiatry, selected 268 young men at Harvard whom they had determined to be the most promising, successful and well-adjusted. The plan was to track their progress over many years in order to determine how exactly the lives of this bright bunch played out.

For seventy years, the group — told they were part of a special elite — were poked and prodded in every conceivable way and every body part measured and compared from length of ‘lip seam’ to scrotum size.

Biological changes during physical activity were painstakingly chronicled, while psychiatrists submitted the young men to a battery of Rorschach and other popular psychological tests of the time.

In 1967, psychiatrist George Vaillant became the Grant study’s shepherd, monitoring the course of what the study’s founders expected to have been two hundred plus success stories.

In fact, in many instances, individual cases read like Shakespearean tragedy.

Disastrous outcomes

Although a number of the group achieved extraordinary outward success — the participants included the late President John F. Kennedy, a presidential cabinet member, a newspaper editor, a bestselling author, and four who ran for U. S. Senate — by age 50 a third of the men had suffered clinical mental illness. A good percentage had become alcoholics.

Many of those considered most gifted turned out to have disastrous or even pointless lives. One young man, the son of a wealthy doctor and artistic mother, was singled out as exceptionally blessed, exemplifying “the qualities of a superior personality.”

At the age of thirty-one, the young man grew hostile toward his parents and eventually the world. Vaillant and his colleagues discovered that he had lived nomadically, dated a psychotic girlfriend, smoked a good deal of dope, and dined out on a rich seam of humorous stories before dying young.

Another young man, considered one of the most “bubbling and effervescent” of the group, followed a batch of odd jobs and married and divorced several women before finally coming out of the closet, after which he became a heavy drinker and at age sixty-four was killed after falling down his apartment building’s stairs during a binge.

Bock was shocked by how his best and brightest were doing. “They were normal when I picked them,” he remarked when Vaillant caught up with him in the 1960s. “It must have been the psychiatrists who screwed them up.”

As a psychiatrist, Vaillant is particularly interested in “adaptations,” or defense mechanisms – how a person unconsciously responds to stress —whether from physical pain, conflict of any sort or even the unknown. As time wore on, the most successful among his cohort developed mature adaptations, such as humor or working out conflict constructively.

However, among those living longest, one of the chief adaptive qualities that made for a long and happy life was altruism.

One young social misfit, given to depression, found his calling as a psychiatrist in mid-life, inspired by the kindness of a healthcare worker during one of his bouts in the hospital. One tiny act of selflessness cleared his path and he went on to have a highly successful life helping others.

Pleasure vs meaning

This accords with another piece of research I recently uncovered, carried out by psychologists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Their experiment was all about examining the difference in health between people who live a fulfilling life of pleasure – what we’d normally define as the good life – compared to those who live a life of purpose or meaning.

The pleasure seekers had low levels of depression, but the psychologists were amazed to discover high levels of inflammation, considered a marker for degenerative illness like Alzheimer’ disease and cancer.

These were all perfect candidates for a heart attack.

Those whose lives were perhaps not as affluent but that were purposeful and filled with meaning, not only were not depressed, but had low inflammatory markers, indicative of rude good health.

The bottom line of the ‘ I want, I get’ good-life scenario is that it ultimately kills you. The key to a long and healthy life is living a life that concerns itself with a meaning beyond satisfying the needs of number 1.

Lynne McTaggart

Lynne McTaggart is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including the worldwide international bestsellers The Power of Eight, The Field, The Intention Experiment and The Bond, all considered seminal books of the New Science and now translated into some 30 languages.

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