What Makes Us Happy
Barbara Fatum, M.Ed., Ed.D.
It’s an age-old question; “what makes us happy?” Is it true love? Is it fulfillment in our careers? Is it status, respect, intelligence, money, family, friends, health, or any combination of these factors? Well, we have an amazing source to turn to for some answers to this question. For 72 years, researchers at Harvard have been examining this question, following 268 men who entered college in the late 1930’s through war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and old age. The architect responsible for continuing the study, Dr. George Vaillant, has dedicated his career since 1967 to following the men of the Grant study. (Arlie Bock, a physician who took over the health services at Harvard in the 1930’s, conceived the project with his patron, department-store magnate W.T. Grant.) Dr. Vaillant has said, “To be able to study lives in such depth, over so many decades….it was like looking through the Mount Palomar telescope.”
Dr. Vaillant identified with the longitudinal method of research, which tracks relatively small samples over long periods of time, in 1961, while a psychiatric resident at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center. Dr. Vaillant points out that longitudinal studies, like wine, improve with age. As the Grant study men entered middle age (in the 1960”s) many achieved wonderful success. Four members of the sample ran for the U.S. Senate, one served in a presidential Cabinet, and one was president. There was also a best-selling novelist. But there were also darker stories. By age 50, almost a third of the men had at one time or another met Dr. Vaillant’s criteria for mental illness. Although the Grant study men remain anonymous, some have revealed themselves. Ben Bradlee, the long-time editor of The Washington Post and John F. Kennedy both revealed themselves as part of the study. (President Kennedy’s records have been withdrawn from the study office and sealed until 2040).
Dr. Vaillant’s central question in the analysis of the Grant men has not been how much or how little trouble the men met, but rather precisely how-and to what effect- they responded to that trouble. Calling these responses “adaptations,” or defense mechanisms in the traditional psychoanalytic tradition, Dr. Vaillant feels that adaptations shape or distort a person’s reality. There are four categories of adaptations from worst to best. The unhealthiest adaptations are “psychotic” adaptations – like paranoia, hallucination, or megalomania. The healthiest or “mature” adaptations include:
altruism (commitment to others’ wellbeing – i.e. empathy)
humor (acquired through knowing yourself)
anticipation (creating a sense of positive outcome – ie optimism)
suppression (a conscious decision to postpone an impulse or decision, to be
addressed in good time – ie consequential thinking)
sublimation (finding outlets and expressions for feelings that promote growth and
good decisions – ie, pursuing a noble goal)
Interviews, physicals, assessments with standardized instruments, and extensive physiological measurements (brain scans, heart scans etc.) have been the basis for analysis of the men’s lives. The data is rich, in qualitative style, and empirical, in the tradition of 1960’s psychological assessment. After following the study for a quarter of a century, Dr. Vaillant identified seven major factors that predict healthy aging, both physically and psychologically: employing positive adaptation, education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, and healthy weight. Dr. Vaillant has said that the major difficulty in healthy aging is alcoholism, which he termed “the horse, not the cart, of pathology.” The key to happiness, according to Dr. Vaillant? “It is social aptitude, not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.” When asked what he had learned from his 40 year association following the Grant study men, Dr. Vaillant replied, “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”
When I finished reading the article describing this study in The Atlantic recently, I was incredibly excited, struck by how much the Grant study validates the importance of Emotional Intelligence (EI). The healthiest “adaptations” are EI competencies that are a core part of the programs that we teach. Altruism is another word for Empathy; Humor is acquired through knowing yourself, being able to step back from a situation, and choosing how to respond; anticipation is a combination of understanding patterns and consequences; suppression is taking six seconds to allow emotions and cognitions to connect; and sublimation is giving yourself to others in a socially acceptable, selfless and noble manner. Dr. Vaillant’s conclusions are echoed by the work and teachings of leaders of the emotional intelligence and social-emotional learning movement: Daniel Goleman, Peter Salovey, John Mayer, Martin Seligman, Maurice Elias, the Dalai Lama, Sam Goldstein, Edward Hallowell, Roger Weissberg, Patricia Wolfe, Karen Stone McCown, Anabel Jensen, Marsha Rideout, and Josh Freedman.
We are very privileged to have the research from the Grant study to draw on. The fact that it supports the main EI precepts that we teach is incredible validation. We need to shout this to the world!!
More about the Atlantic Article is in Tessy’s EQ Planet post below