Ignore the self-help title and check out the article by Joshua Wolf Shenk: "What Makes us Happy?" in this month's issue of The Atlantic. It's a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at "The Grant Study," a long-term study of mental and physical health, spanning 72 years of the lives of 268 men from the Harvard classes of '42, '43, '44.*
I'll start by saying that the study is absolutely limited in a lot of ways: it's all men, all Harvard educated, all white. Our definitions of happiness vary, so even defining what is being studied is a little problematic. But in spite of any issues that there might be with the study or the methodology, the recent article (and the study itself) highlights the difficult, intangible nature of happiness and the seeming impossibility to define it, all with a voyeuristic insight into other peoples lives that you rarely get with even your closest friends. The men all start with a Harvard education in common, but by the end it's impossible to imagine that they once had anything in common. Many ended up successful politicians, businessmen, contributing members of society, but at the same time one-third suffered from mental illness. The findings are a landscape of the excitement and danger of the possibilities life gives to us.
The findings about what those who are found to be happy share in common - education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, partaking in some exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and employing what the study calls "mature" adaptations to stress - shouldn't really surprise anyone. But the most interesting thing is that, despite the length and depth of the study, it remains difficult to answer the crucial question: are these people happy because they manage to do these things, or can they manage to do these things because they are inherently happy? The study grapples with one of the "Big Questions" of life, so even without definitive answers, it's a chance to think and reflect on your own life and happiness.
[Psychologist Dr. George Vaillant on following the Grant Study men. Courtesy of The Atlantic.]
Check out the entire article, here.
*(Although the men are supposed to be kept anonymous throughout the study, we know that John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradlee are among them, as well as a famous novelist who the study's psychologist says only is not Norman Mailer.)