Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What makes us happy?

I just finished reading Joshua Wolf Shenk's article "What Makes Us Happy?" from the Atlantic. It was interesting, for all science is interesting, and it focused on Harvard and psychology (and, tangentially, the challenges of an academic career and obtaining funding). But I think that what makes the article most interesting is a self-interested desire for the reader (me!) to compare my life with those described, and see how I measure up. With a title like "What Makes Us Happy?" I would expect that the article answers. What I'm looking for is a rubric for happiness, so that I can check off some boxes and -- bam! -- be happy.

Of course, there's not an answer, though several are presented. The now-lead researcher Valliant named seven "major factors that predict healthy aging:"
Employing mature adaptations was one. The others were education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, and healthy weight.
These are all forehead-smackingly obvious, and I do pretty well by this metric (though my education is not yet complete and I'm unmarried). But later the article reports that good adjustment in youth/early adulthood (right where I am) is no predictor for health and happiness in old(er) age.
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.”
Again, this seems obvious. (I have to work on this one.)

Shenk's unacknowledged assumption in writing the article is that everyone wants to live to a healthy, happy, bad-memory-obliterating old age. It seems like one of Valliant's goals for the study is to determine some guidelines, or at least predictive factors, for achieving healthy, happy old age. We'll never find out what the self-evaluations are of the study participants who died young. If self-evaluations are what really matters, then those who lived and lived happily are successful, merely by the fact of their happiness.

Bah, humbug. The article was interesting -- I'd recommend that you read it -- but questionable in its romantic portrayal of the way that valiant Valliant kept the study alive. And the "poetry" of the very subjective parts of the study. The ideas of a scientific study is divorced from this researcher-dependent qualitative study, but this makes for such fun reading. (Hat tip: postpostpre via A. via C.)

This post's theme word: kismet, "ineluctable destiny, fate."


masha51 said...

I'm ecstatic.

Andrea said...

also, see the docu series SEVEN UP (british) --- it's another longitudinal study of people's lives. Not scientific at all, just interesting. I like how some of this science just starts approaching great literature/art when it has these goals. the humanities have been tackling this stuff for years, desyo.

Lila is a complex system. said...

What's interesting is that these longitudinal studies DO become more literary and humanities-oriented (maybe like an epic opera) and less scientific as they go on. SEVEN UP is not scientific at all; they portray each kid as a sort of stereotype of childhood, and the hand of the documentarian is visible in some of the interviews, settings, etc. I guess it's hard for even scientists to stay removed from an emotional involvement in their studies over such a long period of time.