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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Source of Happiness

In the late 1930s, Arlie Bock, the director of health services at Harvard University, conceived of the idea of taking the best and brightest from Harvard and studying them over time to determine which qualities in a person are most likely to make for lasting happiness.  Bock had big ambitions for his data, from which he promised to fashion a blueprint for "easing disharmony in the world."

Backed by the department store magnate W.T.Grant, Bock and his colleagues from an impressive array of disciplines — medicine, anthropology, psychology, psychiatry, physiology, and social work — selected 268 young men at Harvard whom they had determined were the most promising, successful, and well adjusted.  The plan was to track their progress over many years in order to determine how exactly the lives of this bright bunch played out.  For seventy years the men were measured and compared, from lip-seam to scrotum size.  Biological changes during physical activity were painstakingly chronicles.  Psychiatrists submitted the young men to a battery of tests popular at the time.  Social workers interviewed the men's relatives at length, uncovering even the most intimate of behavioral details, such as when they had stopped wetting their beds. 

In 1967 the psychiatrist George Vaillant took over the study and became the study's new shepherd, monitoring the course of what the founders expected would be 268 success stories.  But in fact many cases read like tragedies.  Although a number of them did achieve extraordinary success — participants included the late president John F. Kennedy, a presidential cabinet member, a newspaper editor, a best-selling author, and four who ran for the US Senate - by age 50, a third of the men had suffered clinical mental illness.  A good percentage of them became alcoholics. 

Many of those considered the most gifted turned out to have disastrous or even pointless lives.  One young man, the son of a wealthy doctor and an artistic mother, was singled out as exceptionally blessed.  "Perhaps more than any other boy who has been in the Grant Study", wrote on researcher at the start of the study, "the following participant exemplifies the qualities of a superior personality, stability, intelligence, good judgment, health, high purpose, and ideals."

At the age of thirty-one the young man grew hostile toward his parents and eventually the world.  Although the study lost track of him for a time, Valliant and his colleagues finally located him, only to discover that he had lived nomadically, dated a psychotic girlfriend, smoked a good deal of dope, and dined out on a stock batch of humorous stories about his past before dying young.

Another young man, considered one of the most "bubbling and effervescent" of the group took a succession of odd jobs and married and divorced several women before finally coming out of the closet and becoming a leader in the gay rights movement.  Despite this newfound honesty with himself, he became a heavy drinker and at age sixty-four was killed after falling down his apartment building's stairs during a binge.

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."

Money and even a good start didn't guarantee happiness or success.  Good luck didn't guarantee happiness.  A particular personality type didn't guarantee happiness.  What appears to be the most important factor is not how much difficulty you face in your life but you response to that difficulty.

Our defense mechanisms of how a person unconsciously responds to stress, whether the stress is from physical pain, conflict of any sort, or even the unknown, the most successful among his cohorts developed mature adaptations, such a humor or working out conflict constructively. 

The study indicates that it is the ability to adapt and how we respond to stress as the better indicator for long term happiness.

This information is from "The Bond" by Lynne McTaggart, an interesting book on what connects us with each other.

I find studies about happiness and success fascinating. I think we all know people who seem to have it all but are not happy. There are many who are beautiful, smart, or rich and yet are miserable and unhappy.

Understanding what connects us, what makes us tick, and how we can better understand or improve life's journey are often good reads for me.  I'm thoroughly enjoying this book, "The Bond."