Tuesday, May 12, 2009

On Happiness and Aging

David Brooks in today's NY Times op-ed piece: They Had it Made  is about and  links to The Atlantic  piece by Joshua Wolf Schenk on the 72-year-long longitudinal study of 268 Harvard men who started college in 1937 when they were all sophomores. All were considered happy and well adjusted at the time.  Some of the men predicted to end up the most happy did not. The preface to The Atlantic article says:
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.
The study is named after the original funding source (Grant), which lasting for the first ten years.  I have only quoted a few paragraphs that I found the most intriguing.
(Arlie) Bock [the first researcher] 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. Combing 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.
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) but also with respect to method: if it was to come to life, this cleaver-sharp science project would need the rounding influence of storytelling.
So one of the stories we get is really about Vaillant and his perspective:
Yet, even as he takes pleasure in poking holes in an innocent idealism, Vaillant says his hopeful temperament is best summed up by the story of a father who on Christmas Eve puts into one son’s stocking a fine gold watch, and into another son’s, a pile of horse manure. The next morning, the first boy comes to his father and says glumly, “Dad, I just don’t know what I’ll do with this watch. It’s so fragile. It could break.” The other boy runs to him and says, “Daddy! Daddy! Santa left me a pony, if only I can just find it!”
Vaillant’s other main interest is the power of relationships. “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.”
The next three paragraph are the ones I'm particularly interested in with my Appreciative Inquiry hat on.  Positive emotions are so key to successful transitions and I'm interested in any new information on the subject.
Vaillant became a kind of godfather to the field, and a champion of its message that psychology can improve ordinary lives, not just treat disease. But in many ways, his role in the movement is as provocateur. Last October, I watched him give a lecture to Seligman’s graduate students on the power of positive emotions—awe, love, compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, joy, hope, and trust (or faith). “The happiness books say, ‘Try happiness. You’ll like it a lot more than misery’—which is perfectly true,” he told them. But why, he asked, do people tell psychologists they’d cross the street to avoid someone who had given them a compliment the previous day?

In fact, Vaillant went on, 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.

To illustrate his point, he told a story about one of his “prize” Grant Study men, a doctor and well-loved husband. “On his 70th birthday,” Vaillant said, “when he retired from the faculty of medicine, his wife got hold of his patient list and secretly wrote to many of his longest-running patients, ‘Would you write a letter of appreciation?’ And back came 100 single-spaced, desperately loving letters—often with pictures attached. And she put them in a lovely presentation box covered with Thai silk, and gave it to him.” Eight years later, Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box down from his shelf. “George, I don’t know what you’re going to make of this,” the man said, as he began to cry, “but I’ve never read it.” “It’s very hard,” Vaillant said, “for most of us to tolerate being loved.”
Brooks ends his op-ed piece with an appreciation of the skill that Schenk uses in weaving bits about Vaillant's life into his work. I would guess that the quotation from Vaillant in the last paragraph I quoted above says as much about Vaillant as it does about the man he interviewed. Brooks ends his piece with: "There is a complexity to human affairs before which science and analysis simply stands mute."

Comment:  As I mentioned in the middle of the piece, I am particularly interested in how positive emotions assist in people's abilities to move into the future in a positive way.  The importance of love is a message that Jesus brought us and it is a keystone message in both the Gospel of John and the Epistles of John and this message of love was spoken loud and clearly by Tobias Heller's message to Provice II (see my sermon for last Sunday)  But if it's true that "It's very hard for most of us to tolerate being loved, " (I wonder if that's a man-thing, or a thing of men of  "a certain age" or culture (African Bishops take note), then other positive emotions need to come into play, although I don't see how one can be happy without love.  If you meet someone Like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and experience his amazing  ability to show God's love to those around him and to laugh and have fun, you can see the power of positive emotions to effect change for good.  Love and humor and compassion and gratitude and forgiveness and joy and hope and trust and faith:  all positive emotions and IMHO all necessary for happiness.

6 comments:

Grandmère Mimi said...

Amelia, what an intriguing post. And the link is from David Brooks. I think his columns are quite often downright silly, but he's latched on to something good here. I have not read the Atlantic piece, but I will.

The paragraph you quoted about positive emotions is amazing, and, I believe, absolutely true. And this:

Vaillant’s other main interest is the power of relationships. “It is social aptitude,” he writes, “not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.”

Thanks for pointing the way.

motheramelia said...

Mimi, I'm still doing some research on the impact of positive emotions in helping a parish through the interim time and so I latch on to anything new. The power of relationships and stories about the best of the past seem to be common themes. The Atlantic article, was useful in confirming some things, but mostly just interesting in its methodology.

ambersun said...

Thank you for visiting my blog and for your comments and prayers.

I found 2 things interesting about this post. 1) Relationships are important (I find this true) and 2) People find it difficult (at least initially) to accept compliments which is untrue for me.

As a long term sufferer of mental illness I latch onto whatever positives I can get.

I guess it depends where you are in life.

God Bless

Amber

Grandmère Mimi said...

Amelia, I look back on my trip to England as a period of grace. I had quite a number of misadventures, but, by the grace of God, I determined that I would not let any of them spoil my trip, and they did not. Sadly, I don't always have that same good attitude in my everyday life.

motheramelia said...

Amber, your blog is amazing. You persevere in the midst of difficult odds.

Mimi, I think knowing that there are people supporting you, real-life touchable ones and even those over the blogsphere makes a big difference. I also don't always react the same way in my everyday life. I would suspect that's normal.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Amelia, I printed the article. I can't concentrate on writing of that length by reading online. It's fascinating.