Happiness, it's complicated. / by KirstenStudio

Happy. Happy by definition, according to the Oxford American Dictionary is:happy_face

  1. feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.
  2. a fortunate. b (of words, behavior, etc.) apt; pleasing.
  3. colloq. slightly drunk.
  4. (in comb.) colloq. inclined to use excessively (trigger-happy).

Happily adv. Happiness n.

What an individual’s perception of pleasure and/or contentment is where Happy (or Happiness) gets complicated. When I think of my own personal happiness, relationships, peace, challenge, creativity, laughter, travel and good books come to mind. On certain days I might change those up a bit, but most of them are probably pretty consistent, but also pretty abstract (i.e. what kind of challenges or what type of relationships). When you really start thinking about particulars, the list can get long too  (for instance food, sex, or just going to the movies with a great friend).

The examination of happiness is interesting. I’m not the only one who thinks so either. The Atlantic’s June 2009 cover story is entitled “What Makes Us Happy” written by Joshua Wolf Shenk takes a look at both physical and psychological research done over the course of a man’s lifetime, in fact over the course of many men’s lifetime.

Harvard researchers have been posing the question of happiness by following men from their college days in the 1930’s to present day. The current director of this study (referred to as the Grant Study) is George Vaillant. Joshua Wolf Shenk writes “The project is one of the longest-running-and probably the most exhaustive-longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history. Begun in 1937 as a study of healthy, well-adjusted Harvard sophomores (all male), it has followed its subjects for more than 70 years.”Research has taken into consideration each case study’s childhood history as well as their current situations at each interview, physical and survey interval throughout their life. The article reads “For 42 years, the psychiatrist George Vaillant has been the chief curator of these lives, the chief investigator of their experiences, and the chief analyst of their lessons.” Mr. Vaillant and his predecessors, such as Arlie Bock (a doctor who oversaw health services at Harvard during the 1930’s) made discoveries both surprising and predictable. During Bock’s time, Mr. Shenk reports, “Bock assembled a team that spanned medicine, physiology, anthropology, psychiatry, psychology, and social work and was advised by such luminaries as the psychiatrist Adolf Meyer and the psychologist Henry Murray. Combining through health data, academic records and recommendations from the Harvard dean, they chose 268 students-mostly from the classes of 1942, ’43, and ’44-and measured them from every conceivable angle and with every available scientific tool.”

What did they find out about happiness? Well, like I said, it’s complicated.  Mr. Shenk’s article reads “The study began in the spirit of laying lives out on a microscope slide. But it turned out that the lives were too big, too weird, too full of subtleties and contradictions to fit any easy conception of “successful living”. Arlie Bock had gone looking for binary conclusions-yeses and nos, dos and don’ts. But the enduring lessons would be paradoxical, not only on the substance of the men’s lives (the most inspiring triumphs were often studies in hardship)...”.

Shenk writes of the Grant Study’s present director, Mr. Vaillant, “His central question is not how much or how little trouble these men met, but rather precisely how-and to what effect-they responded to that trouble. His main interpretive lens has been the psychoanalytic metaphor of “adaptations,” or unconscious responses to pain, conflict, or uncertainty."

So of course it’s not just about whether a person has had obscene amounts of good fortune throughout their personal or professional lives, it’s about how well a person responds to any given circumstance they encounter and then what they get out of it. How do defenses (or unconscious responses)  answer the question of what makes us happy? I think it means if a person develops healthy responses or adaptations to life’s bumps in the road, those bumps can be significantly less jarring next time if one does indeed learn from each of those challenges. In other words, a person can gain perspective that informs future decisions, hopefully for the better. Do we meet a dilemma with healthy response tools we've built over the years, or do we continue to use immature defenses with less than satisfactory results (i.e. passive aggressive responses)?  That progressive (hopefully) wisdom, in my opinion, can indeed lead to a peaceful and happy existence. (Mr. Vaillant goes into much more detail and divides defenses into 4 categories. It’s a fascinating read. If you’ve gotten this far in this blog and you might as well read the article. Link above.)

There are more straightforward tidbits from the Grant Study as well. For instance, “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.” Mr. Vaillant also says his research shows, “It’s social aptitude, not intellectual brilliance or social class, that leads to successful aging. Relationships matter more than anything else.”  Also, "... pessimists seemed to suffer physically in comparison with optimists...".

The “What Makes Us Happy” article is lengthy and I can’t begin to cover all the details that create a complete picture of the study, but it does pose interesting questions and comes up with very interesting conclusions. Mr. Vaillant also expanded the project by incorporating two other studies into the Grant Study. One from a juvenile delinquents study in inner-city Boston and another from a group of women from the Stanford Terman Study.

And why, you may ask, is this subject written about on an editor’s blog. Well, I think happiness has a lot to do with someone’s profession (of course, not completely) and how well they perform that profession. Does my job provide some creativity, intellectually stimulus and build relationships? Does it offer opportunity to build social aptitude, respond to challenge and learn from those challenges? Does it give me a certain level of self-worth? I’d say yes, so I feel fortunate (except on bad days when the computer isn’t cooperating or something miserable like that). So I guess what I’m saying is that work, and I think especially those positions that involve a certain amount of creativity, makes a impact on one's happiness. So although a person’s job is not their entire identity, it does contribute to one's overall happiness.  But like I said, it's complicated.