Wednesday, July 15, 2009

There have been two major developments recently in the study of happiness, with dramatically divergent approaches. First, the Gallup Organization offers a detailed daily measure of happiness in the United States, based on 1,000 nightly in-depth interviews. Call it the national happiness pulse. A few initial findings: The ratio of happiness to stress is about 5 to 1 on an average day, but 1-1 for lonely people; weekends are the happiest days; and women worry more than men.

Second, a journalist was given unprecedented access to the archives of a 72-year study on the lives of 268 men who entered college in the 1930s. Writing in the Atlantic about the Harvard Study of Adult Development, Joshua Wolf Shenk reported, “The project is one of the longest-running - and probably most exhaustive - longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history,” including interviews, questionnaires, medical exams and psychological tests.

Psychiatrist George Vaillant led the study for 42 years and compared the experience to looking through the world’s most powerful telescope for the views it has provided into the soul. He observes that, like wines, longitudinal studies improve with age: The findings get richer. What a rich data set it is, including a U.S. president (though John F. Kennedy’s files are sealed until 2040), a best-selling novelist and four candidates for the U.S. Senate. Yet by age 50, nearly a third of the subjects had met Dr. Vaillant’s criteria for mental illness during a segment of their lives, with some confronting substance abuse, depression, suicide and more.

Witnessing that kind of complexity, Mr. Shenk observed in the Atlantic, “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.’ ”

Dr. Vaillant also gained access to other longitudinal studies of men and women that deepened his understanding of adult development. He focused not on the amount of trouble people had in their lives but on how they responded to it - their “adaptations” or “defense mechanisms” to pain, conflict and uncertainty.

By the time the men in the Harvard study were retiring, Dr. Vaillant had identified seven factors that he says predict healthy aging: employing mature adaptations (such as anticipation of potential problems, humor, altruism, moderating impulses to await a better time, and finding outlets for feelings), education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, exercise and healthy weight. Mr. Shenk reports that “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 Dr. 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.”

Another key factor in the happiness equation - and a reliable predictor of late-life adjustment - is relationships (especially good sibling relationships). According to Dr. Vaillant, “It is social aptitude … that leads to successful aging.” When asked what he has learned from the study, Dr. Vaillant opined: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships.”

Today, Dr. Vaillant is seen as a godfather to the field of “positive psychology,” which exploded in the 1990s as it sought to understand what makes people thrive. According to Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association and a leader in the field, “George is the poet of this movement. He makes us aware that we’re yearning for deeper stuff.”

So, yes, let’s track happiness daily via Gallup polls and tweet about it on Twitter. But let’s also mine the depths. Dr. Vaillant observed of the Harvard study participants: “Their lives were too human for science, too beautiful for numbers, too sad for diagnosis and too immortal for bound journals.” Like Dr. Vaillant, we all should be students of the good life.

• Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek are founding partners of New Mountain Ventures, a personal leadership development firm. They can be reached at authors@life

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