What Makes Us Happy?


There’s a piece in the 6/09 Atlantic Monthly entitled “What Makes Us Happy?”, a fascinating examination of a 72 year old research project from Harvard University, now known as the Grant Study. For the last 42 of those years, a Harvard psychiatrist, George Vaillant, has made it his career focus if not obsession.


The study is ongoing and has followed 268 male Harvard preppies from their sophomore years to the present. All subjects chosen were judged to be well adjusted and healthy with seemingly nothing standing in their way to achieving the pinnacle of personal and professional success.  Virtually every aspect of their lives was scrutinized.  Researchers visited their homes regularly and analyzed everything imaginable from interpretations of Rorschach inkblots to handwriting samples to various body dimensions and physiological functions.  One of the subjects was JFK, but his files were removed from the study long ago and sealed from the public until 2040, adding further to the Kennedy mystique.  Approximately half of the men are still living, now in their late 80s and early 90s, so their bios are rapidly approaching their final chapters. 

Though the intent of the study was an attempt to reliably identify physical and psychological characteristics in youth that could predict success in later life, the outcomes of these life narratives suggest that a critical premise was inherently flawed.  That is, many of these “golden boys”, who showed so much promise at the outset, were met with tragic endings of Shakespearean proportions.  For example, a third would experience at least one episode of serious mental illness.  High alcoholism and divorce rates were typical complications. Interestingly, a number of the relatively unobtrusive in the group turned out to be the most successful, whereas many deemed early on to be highly stable, intelligent, outgoing, and virtuous had troublesome adjustments. 

Some of the more intriguing findings were that the men tended to cope better with their problems better as they aged, if they lived long enough.  Those who had depression before age 50 were much more likely to die by 63.  Those with close relationships in their developmental years, particularly with siblings, were much healthier than those without them.  Personality traits identified by psychiatrists in their initial interviews correlated closely with whether the men became Democrats (“sensitive”, “cultural”, and “introspective”) or Republicans (“organized” and “pragmatic”).  What factor didn’t matter?  One of note that I found surprising…Cholesterol levels at age 50 had nothing to do with health in old age!  (Yet statins are the most prescribed drug class in the world today.)

By the time the men had reached retirement, Vaillant identified 7 major factors that predicted healthy aging, including mature adaptation skills, education, stable marriages, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise and healthy weight.  But the power of healthy relationships, which he referred to as “social aptitude”, was perhaps the most important ingredient in the recipe for successful aging and happiness.  As Vaillant put it, “Happiness is love.  Full Stop!”  

Scott Zentner