Happy New Year, everyone. Please accept my fondest wishes for a happy, healthy, abundant and intentional New Year.
In the UK where I live, everything slows and even shuts down for 10 days over the holiday season. So during our holiday break I had the opportunity to read an entire magazine of the London Sunday Times devoted to the study of happiness and what exactly makes for the good life.
Some of the ideas expressed in one of the articles, written by Joshua Wolf Shenk for the Atlantic, make for a good discussion, during this first week of the new year, about what it means to be happy and whether we can program ourselves — through intention or any other means — to be happy all the time, as many people believe.
Shenk’s article concerns an in-depth look at the Grant study, one of the most complex and fascinating pieces of medical and psychological research unique in modern times.
In the late 1930s, Arlie Bock, director of the 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 ‘attempt to analyze the forces that have produced normal young men’.
Unlike virtually all medicine of the time, which focused on pathology, Bock wished to study the qualities of wellness, happiness and success: those x-factors that make for a happy life. Bock had big plans; from his data, he promised a blueprint for ‘easing disharmony in the world’.
Bock and his colleagues from an impressive array of disciplines — medicine, anthropology, psychology, psychiatry, physiology, social work — set about selecting 268 young men at Harvard as the most promising, potentially successful and well-adjusted to take part in a longitudinal study. This kind of exercise gets hold of a relatively small sampling of people and tracks their progress over a long period of time.
This is not the only piece of research like this. In 1948, in an attempt to discover the common causes of cardiovascular disease, a group of scientists at Boston University hit upon the idea of tracking its development over time among a large group of participants – in this instance, a substantial percentage of an entire town of Framingham, Massachusetts.
Nevertheless, the Grant study is perhaps the only one of its kind to study the exhaustive biography of all of its sampling (whose survivors are now in their late 80s) in order to determine how exactly the lives of this bright bunch played out.
For 70 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 with any physical activity were painstakingly observed. Social workers, interviewing their relatives at length, uncovered such private details as when they stopped wetting the beds. Psychiatrists submitted the young men to a battery of Rorschach and other popular psychological tests of the time.
Over many years and successors after Bock finished with it, chiefly psychiatrist George Vaillant, its shepherd since 1967, the Grant study continued to maintain contact with its cohort, monitoring the course of what should have been two hundred plus success stories.
In fact, the cases, in many instances, read like Shakespearean tragedy. 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 goodly percentage became 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: ‘Perhaps more than any other boy who has been in the Grant Study,’ wrote one researcher about him, ‘the following participant exemplifies the qualities of a superior personality: stability, intelligence, good judgment, health, high purpose, and ideals.’
At the age of 31, the young man grew hostile toward his parents and eventually the world. Although the study lost track of him for a time, eventually Vaillant and his colleagues discovered 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 a string of women before finally coming out of the closet and becoming a leader in the gay rights movement. Nevertheless, despite this newfound honesty with himself, he became a heavy drinker and at 64 killed himself by drunkenly falling down his apartment building’s stairs.
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.’
On the other hand, others who’d started out with difficult early lives rallied as time went on. One young social misfit, given to depression, found his calling as a psychiatrist in mid-life after someone was simply kind to him during one of his bouts in the hospital.
All the usual confident predictions about people’s lives are defied by this sampling and also by another study managed by Vaillant, called the Glueck cohort. This study contains the flip side of the Harvard cohort: a group of non-delinquent boys from inner-city Boston, the offspring of poor and largely foreign-born parents, who were also followed for 70 years.
In both groups, rich and poor, Valliant has noted the same themes and he is very careful about generalizing what he has observed. Money and even a good start don’t guarantee happiness or success. Good luck doesn’t guarantee happiness. A particular personality type doesn’t guarantee happiness. What appears to be the x-factor is not how much difficulty you face in your life but your response to that difficulty.
As a psychiatrist, Vaillant is particularly interested in ‘adaptations’, or defense mechanisms – how a human unconsciously responds to stress, whether outright pain, or conflict of any sort or even the unknown.
Although many of his young men began using immature adaptations (such as acting out, passive aggression or projection), as time wore on, the most successful found mature adaptations, such as humor, ways of sublimating aggression (such as sport), working out conflict constructively or altruism. Indeed, among those living longest, as they reached 50, both human and altruism became more common and immature responses more rare.
Illness, nutritional pioneer Dr. Stephen Davies once said, is simply the failure of an organism to adapt to his environment. That environment can be entirely hostile, but we remain healthy if we understand how to navigate through it with grace.
In his article, Shenk calls mature adaptations a ‘real life alchemy’, ‘a way of turning the dross of emotional crises, pain and deprivation into the gold of human connection, accomplishment and creativity’. Vaillant likens it to the grit of sand in an oyster eventually transforming into a pearl.
This idea seems to me to be profound. So much of the time in the personal development field, we suggest that we have the power to make the bad times go away permanently.
What is most important is the understanding that every tough moment is your life’s biggest pearl. That, in my view, is the key to the good life.