72 Year Harvard Study on Happiness

Loving is the most important contributor to happiness.
Happiness is love. Full stop
-Dr. George Vaillant

the Atlantic
June 2009
Joshua Wolf Shenk

Dr. George Vaillant, director of a 72-year Harvard study on aging, explains what makes people strive
for fame and why dirty laundry symbolizes a perfect life

Is there a formula—some mix of love, work, and psychological adaptation—for a good life? For 72 years, researchers at Harvard have been examining this question, following 268 men who entered college in the late 1930s through war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and old age. Here, for the first time, a journalist gains access to the archive of one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history. Its contents, as much literature as science, offer profound insight into the human condition—and into the brilliant, complex mind of the study’s longtime director, George Vaillant.

More than 80 percent of the Grant Study men served in World War II, a fact that allowed Vaillant to study the effect of combat. The men who survived heavy fighting developed more chronic physical illnesses and died sooner than those who saw little or no combat, he found. And “severity of trauma is the best predictor of who is likely to develop PTSD.” (This may sound obvious, but it countered the claim that post-traumatic stress disorder was just the manifestation of preexisting troubles.)

“It is social aptitude,” he writes, “not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.” Warm connections are necessary—and if not found in a mother or father, they can come from siblings, uncles, friends, mentors. The men’s relationships at age 47, he found, predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable, except defenses. Good sibling relationships seem especially powerful: 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger. In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

Positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs—protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections—but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak..........more from the Atlantic

Harvard Gazette
William J. Cromie 2001
How to be happy and well rather than sad and sick

Dr. George Vaillant and his colleagues at Harvard University Health Services teased out seven predictors, which are at least partly under personal control, and, if adhered to before age 50, can lead to good physical and mental health at ages 70, 80, and older.
Some of them are old news, things like quitting smoking, exercising regularly, and not abusing alcohol. Others turn out to be surprises. For example, education trumps money and social prestige as a route to health and happiness......

Life ain't easy," Vaillant points out. "Terrible things happen to everyone. You have to keep your sense of humor, give something of yourself to others, make friends who are younger than you, learn new things, and have fun."
Immature defenses, on the other hand, produce sad results. Don't blame others for your problems, or deny that you have problems. Having imaginary rather than real friends causes more problems than it solves. So does distracting yourself by sipping scotch and watching television. ...
With hard work and/or therapy, our relationships with our spouses and our coping styles can be changed for the better. A successful old age may lie not so much in our stars and genes as in ourselves." ....more

Talk of the Nation
June 1, 2009
What Makes Us Happy?

Journalist Joshua Wolf Shenk gained access to one of the most comprehensive studies conducted to find the formula for happiness. "What Makes Us Happy?" is his essay in the June issue of The Atlantic. Shenk, along with Todd Kashdan, professor of psychology and author of Curious: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life, explore what makes us happy.

Happiness is a result of warm, caring, quality relationships. ...and relationships are hard, ones ability to cope, tolerate, and skilled conflict resolution are the key to fulfilling relationships......................listen to full 30 minute interview


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