The Atlantic‘s Joshua Shenk has a fascinating story about a long-running study, started in the 1930s (!), that attempts to discern what makes people happy in life. The study has collected extensive data on subjects over a 70 year period. I couldn’t stop reading the article… what an amazing dataset. But, before I say more about that, here is Shenk’s synopsis of a single case file (ie. actual data) from the study:
Case No. 158
An attractive, amiable boy from a working-class background, you struck the study staff as happy, stable, and sociable. “My general impression is that this boy will be normal and well-adjusted—rather dynamic and positive,” the psychiatrist reported.
After college, you got an advanced degree and began to climb the rungs in your profession. You married a terrific girl, and you two played piano together for fun. You eventually had five kids. Asked about your work in education, you said, “What I am doing is not work; it is fun. I know what real work is like.” Asked at age 25 whether you had “any personal problems or emotional conflicts (including sexual),” you answered, “No … As Plato or some of your psychiatrists might say, I am at present just ‘riding the wave.’” You come across in your files as smart, sensible, and hard-working. “This man has always kept a pleasant face turned toward the world,” Dr. Heath noted after a visit from you in 1949. From your questionnaire that year, he got “a hint … that everything has not been satisfactory” at your job. But you had no complaints. After interviewing you at your 25th reunion, Dr. Vaillant described you as a “solid guy.”
Two years later, at 49, you were running a major institution. The strain showed immediately. Asked for a brief job description, you wrote: “RESPONSIBLE (BLAMED) FOR EVERYTHING.” You added, “No matter what I do … I am wrong … We are just ducks in a shooting gallery. Any duck will do.” On top of your job troubles, your mother had a stroke, and your wife developed cancer. Three years after you started the job, you resigned before you could be fired. You were 52, and you never worked again. (You kept afloat with income from stock in a company you’d done work for, and a pension.)
Seven years later, Dr. Vaillant spoke with you: “He continued to obsess … about his resignation,” he wrote. Four years later, you returned to the subject “in an obsessional way.” Four years later still: “It seemed as if all time had stopped” for you when you resigned. “At times I wondered if there was anybody home,” Dr. Vaillant wrote. Your first wife had died, and you treated your second wife “like a familiar old shoe,” he said.
But you called yourself happy. When you were 74, the questionnaire asked: “Have you ever felt so down in the dumps that nothing could cheer you up?” and gave the options “All of the time, some of the time, none of the time.” You circled “None of the time.” “Have you felt calm and peaceful?” You circled “All of the time.” Two years later, the study asked: “Many people hope to become wiser as they grow older. Would you give an example of a bit of wisdom you acquired and how you came by it?” You wrote that, after having polio and diphtheria in childhood, “I never gave up hope that I could compete again. Never expect you will fail. Don’t cry, if you do.”
What fascinates me is the absolute novelty of this kind of data. Normally, when someone relates their “life story,” we willingly participate in something of a shared lie. Both listener and story-teller know that the “life story” is being told in hindsight: Memory is not perfect and humans sometimes (often, perhaps) add meaning and create unifying themes in stories where they may be none. We emphasize the good parts and try to forget the not-so-good parts. In a sense, history recounted is never truly veridical but instead tainted with everything that happened after. Which is precisely why the availability of an objective history than spans an entire lifetime (or, as objective as possible) of both a qualitative (interview) and quantitative (medical) nature is so novel.
As you might expect, the data is confusing and hard conclusions are not easy to come by. There are however some tangible factors that seemed to correlate/predict success in life, which I’ve included after the jump. What predicts success in life? What predicts failure?
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.
There is also a nice video of the George Valliant (who has run the study for the last 40 years) along with the article.