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What Makes Us Happy – Article from The Atlantic

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I just read a brilliant article in The Atlantic about a long-running happiness study. It followed 286 men  through their lives and attempted to uncover the factors that predicted and determined their live-long well being.

The intro:

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.”

One of the key measures of success was  which “adaptations” (also known as “defense mechanisms”) were employed in the face of challenges, ranked from “psychotic” to “mature.” Some highlights:

“Mature adaptations are a real-life alchemy, a way of turning the dross of emotional crises, pain, and deprivation into the gold of human connection, accomplishment, and creativity. ‘Such mechanisms are analogous to the involuntary grace by which an oyster, coping with an irritating grain of sand, creates a pearl,” [study director Dr. Valliant] writes. “Humans, too, when confronted with irritants, engage in unconscious but often creative behavior.'”

The study’s director also described how positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak. It would seem that happier people are able to put aside short-term security for long-term happiness.

It was a fantastic article with some interesting specifics about the men in the study (one of which was JFK, interestingly). It’s a bit of a read but worth your time:


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