The pathos of studying happiness

In the June Atlantic Monthly, Joshua Wolf Shenk has a long, moving article about what may be the longitudinal study of all longitudinal studies - the Harvard Study of Adult Development (Grant Study), begun in 1937. Its creator Arlie Beck planned to track 268 "healthy, well-adjusted" men from their sophomore year at Harvard through careers, marriage, families, retirement and eventually death - and somehow, from this glut of longitudinal data, to glean the secrets of "successful living."

But the portrait Shenk paints is as full of pathos as it is of success.

Delving into the case files, now kept by Beck's successor George Vaillant and his colleague Robert Waldinger, Shenk finds lives that don't fit a clean trajectory:

As the Grant Study men entered middle age - they spent their 40s in the 1960s - many achieved dramatic success. Four members of the sample ran for the U.S. Senate. One served in a presidential Cabinet, and one was president. There was a best-selling novelist (not, Vaillant has revealed, Norman Mailer, Harvard class of '43). But hidden amid the shimmering successes were darker hues. As early as 1948, 20 members of the group displayed severe psychiatric difficulties. By age 50, almost a third of the men had at one time or another met Vaillant's criteria for mental illness. Underneath the tweed jackets of those Harvard elites beat troubled hearts. Arlie Bock didn't get it. "They were normal when I picked them," he told Vaillant in the 1960s. "It must have been the psychiatrists that screwed them up."

This is the kind of messy data that makes social science so challenging. Successful, apparently happy men plunge into substance abuse or mental illness for no clear reasons. Bock wanted to study "normal" men - he carefully selected his subjects for it - but what is "normal" anyway? For those of us who attended high-pressure undergraduate or graduate programs, it probably comes as no surprise at all that Bock's young overachievers had emotional issues, or that subsequent career or life stressors brought those out. Not a few people would argue that depression is "normal" in such academic environments. Bock may have wanted to quantitate success, but there are many kinds of success - and high expectations can be their own kind of poison.

Shenk's article is extremely well-written. His moving synopses of the subjects' lives capture the contradictions and unspoken vulnerabilities in every human being. An apparently happy man devolves into obsession and depression. An unrepentant alcoholic is "clearly depressed. . .and yet full of joy and vitality." Consider the well-respected, happily married doctor who, on his retirement at age 70, received a package of 100 thank-you letters from long-time patients:

Eight years later, Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box down from his shelf. "George, I don't know what you're going to make of this," the man said, as he began to cry, "but I've never read it." "It's very hard," Vaillant said, "for most of us to tolerate being loved."

Shenk doesn't exclude Vaillant himself from his ruminations on happiness. While Vaillant's approach to all of this has been optimistic - constantly seeking new sources of funding to continue and expand the study, out of faith that it would reveal factors that predict healthy aging and happiness - Shenk paints a picture of a man every bit as complex as his subjects. Vailant is a professional success, apparently happy, but he has several failed marriages and troubled relationships with his children. Vaillant calls himself "a disconnected, narcissistic father," yet when asked "What have you learned from the Grant Study men?" Vaillant answered, "That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people." Vaillant symbolizes one of Shenk's main points: that self-knowledge doesn't necessarily bring either happiness or power. Recognizing and studying the dysfunctions in one's own life doesn't give one the power to fix them.

The Grant Study has outlived a number of movements, models, and fads in psychiatry and health, and been used to support various assertions - many of them Vaillant's - about mental and physical health. But Shenk's article doesn't dwell on these conclusions. Instead, it ruminates freely on the limitations of empirical science, on the colorful aspects of personality and emotion that can't be reduced to longitudinal data points. We can and do collect exhaustive data in our quest to understand what makes us happy. Our conclusions often seem counterintuitive, incomplete, or illogical. Identifying a problem rarely empowers us to fix it. Yet we shouldn't stop trying, should we? I was reminded of a line from Tom Stoppard's Arcadia: "It's wanting to know that makes us matter."

If you read one essay this weekend, take the time to read Joshua Wolf Shenk's article. Seriously. Then, go do whatever it is you do to make yourself and those you love happy.

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I believe the longitudinal study of all longitudinal studies is probably the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study which may provide better data, since the cohort is random, and factors such as genetics and physical health are included and can be compared.

In any case, it's hard to judge how someone is feeling sometimes; people tend to hide negative feelings as far as they can, even from themselves.

That article took me a long time to finish, but it's definitely worth it.

I have reservations, though, about how useful a study comprised exclusively of Harvard men from the 1930s is. It seems like a pretty abnormal group to begin with â not just the elite education but also the likely social and class backgrounds of the participants. That might create opportunities and expectations not as applicable to the rest of society, and that in turn could affect the men's happiness levels. The lack of women in the group is also a limitation.

Fascinating post, BioE. My personal theory is that happiness is a post hoc story that we tell ourselves about ourselves, and has little to do with our actual ongoing emotional state.

"My personal theory is that happiness is a post hoc story that we tell ourselves about ourselves, and has little to do with our actual ongoing emotional state."

I completely agree. I think most metacognition, including our experience of our own emotions, is a fiction designed to accommodate our physiology. Studies of brain-damaged patients indicate that we are remarkably good at convincing ourselves we have a logical reason for what we do, or that our actions are purposeful - even when we are dead wrong. Same probably goes for happiness.

John - your concerns are exactly why Vaillant later expanded the study by comparing his cohort with cohorts of lower socioeconomic status men or college women from other longitudinal studies. The way the study was originally designed says a lot about the prejudices of its time, doesn't it?

"That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people."

If there was anything at all I learnt at university it was that. My mother used to say that life is like juggling, with so many balls to keep up in the air, job, home, money, family...

The thing to remember is that one of those balls is made of glass. The rest are can drop them and pick them up again, but there's one ball there you can never, ever afford to drop. And thats family. The people you care about.