Vivek Haldar

Reading Happiness

I keep rediscovering and re-reading this article in The Atlantic, “What Makes Us Happy?”, about the longest longitudinal study of adult life ever conducted. It is a marvelous and poignant piece of writing. Joshua Wolf Shenk, the author, does not shy away from the complexity of the issue, and does not pretend that he, or Vaillant, the protagonist of the piece, have any easy answers.

What haunts me is the style of the article: long stretches that build atmosphere, interleaved with quick punches of insight. Just go read it. Some of my favorite vignettes:

The undertones of psychoanalysis are tragic; Freud dismissed the very idea of “normality” as “an ideal fiction” and famously remarked that he hoped to transform “hysterical misery into common unhappiness.” The spirit of modern social science, by contrast, draws on a brash optimism that the secrets to life can be laid bare. Vaillant is an optimist marinated in tragedy, not just in his life experience, but in his taste.

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.” Meanwhile, of the men who had three or fewer of the health factors at age 50, none ended up “happy-well” at 80. Even if they had been in adequate physical shape at 50, the men who had three or fewer protective factors were three times as likely to be dead at 80 as those with four or more factors.