What Makes Us Happy?

Exerpted from this great article in The Atlantic:

What allows people to work, and love, as they grow old? By the time the Grant Study men had entered retirement, Vaillant, who had then been following them for a quarter century, had identified seven major factors that predict healthy aging, both physically and psychologically.

Employing mature adaptations was one. The others were education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, and healthy weight. Of the 106 Harvard men who had five or six of these factors in their favor at age 50, half ended up at 80 as what Vaillant called “happy-well” and only 7.5 percent as “sad-sick.” Meanwhile, of the men who had three or fewer of the health factors at age 50, none ended up “happy-well” at 80. Even if they had been in adequate physical shape at 50, the men who had three or fewer protective factors were three times as likely to be dead at 80 as those with four or more factors.

What factors don’t matter? Vaillant identified some surprises. Cholesterol levels at age 50 have nothing to do with health in old age. While social ease correlates highly with good psychosocial adjustment in college and early adulthood, its significance diminishes over time. The predictive importance of childhood temperament also diminishes over time: shy, anxious kids tend to do poorly in young adulthood, but by age 70, are just as likely as the outgoing kids to be “happy-well.” Vaillant sums up: “If you follow lives long enough, the risk factors for healthy life adjustment change. There is an age to watch your cholesterol and an age to ignore it.”

The study has yielded some additional subtle surprises. Regular exercise in college predicted late-life mental health better than it did physical health. And depression turned out to be a major drain on physical health: of the men who were diagnosed with depression by age 50, more than 70 percent had died or were chronically ill by 63. More broadly, pessimists seemed to suffer physically in comparison with optimists, perhaps because they’re less likely to connect with others or care for themselves.

 

The whole article is fascinating but as a student of defense mechanisms here is what I find the most interesting critical ingredient to happiness:

Vaillant explains defenses as the mental equivalent of a basic biological process. When we cut ourselves, for example, our blood clots—a swift and involuntary response that maintains homeostasis. Similarly, when we encounter a challenge large or small—a mother’s death or a broken shoelace—our defenses float us through the emotional swamp. And just as clotting can save us from bleeding to death—or plug a coronary artery and lead to a heart attack—defenses can spell our redemption or ruin. Vaillant’s taxonomy ranks defenses from worst to best, in four categories.

At the bottom of the pile are the unhealthiest, or “psychotic,” adaptations—like paranoia, hallucination, or megalomania—which, while they can serve to make reality tolerable for the person employing them, seem crazy to anyone else. One level up are the “immature” adaptations, which include acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy. These aren’t as isolating as psychotic adaptations, but they impede intimacy. “Neurotic” defenses are common in “normal” people. These include intellectualization (mutating the primal stuff of life into objects of formal thought); dissociation (intense, often brief, removal from one’s feelings); and repression, which, Vaillant says, can involve “seemingly inexplicable naïveté, memory lapse, or failure to acknowledge input from a selected sense organ.” The healthiest, or “mature,” adaptations include altruism, humor, anticipation (looking ahead and planning for future discomfort), suppression (a conscious decision to postpone attention to an impulse or conflict, to be addressed in good time), and sublimation (finding outlets for feelings, like putting aggression into sport, or lust into courtship).

 

Growing up I very much wanted to be a psychiatrist.  I started working at my father’s bar under a fake ID at too tender an age.  After dealing with the most immature defense mechanisms in the least mature crowd I realized that all psychology is in the patient’s own hands.  Neither drinks nor active listening nor even gentle steering will help someone help himself if he has not already decided to do so.  

Perhaps more importantly, the article returns repeatedly to relationships.  The most mature defense mechanisms are relationship-based (altruism, humor, sublimation).  It takes us back to the adage that people who need people are the luckiest people.  Those “immature” defenses — passive-aggressive types who need people only to “appreciate” them by way of reinforcing the sociopathy that the passive aggressive person is somehow entitled to behave like that — perpetuate a downward cycle further isolating the immature, the unhappy, the self-alienating.

My family is incredibly close.  I’m constantly looking at the marginal gain from an extra hour of study versus an extra hour soaking up family time.  Around exam months I try to calculate that margin in dollars, in blood pressure, etc., though clearly that’s an “immature” stress-induced (procrastination!) coping mechanism.  I rely pretty squarely on those things that “nice” folks in unprestigious jobs tell themselves.  But indeed it is nice, always, to have my decision reinforced, that relationships count over the long run, that choosing solace (and providing it!) are the factors that count, in the long run.

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