I read a great article today in the Atlantic, dated June 2009, about the psychology of happiness. It's certainly not an original topic. Men and psychologists have pondered the question of what makes us smile and feel contented for a long time, probably since the inception of the human race. The elusive "pursuit of happiness."
This article is less a study of happiness than a profile of one of the longest-running studies of wellbeing: a project following a group of male Harvard sophomores since 1937. The project, which is called the Grant Study, keeps the identity of its participants under wraps, although a few names, including John F. Kennedy, have been revealed over the years. What's interesting about this project is that it doesn't aim to draw the line between unhappiness and happiness, between mental disorders and normality, but instead presents them as interweaving. In fact, we all experience episodes of varying lengths of clarity and breakdown, and what determines whether our lives are overall not tragic is the process of adaptation.
It's an interesting read. I've always had an interest in the study of people. Maybe I should have pursued Psychology instead of getting freaked out by a dismal midterm grade and hightailed out of that Dan Gilbert class.
Anyway, here's the link to the long article and an excerpt I found particularly relevant and amusing.
"Why, [George Vaillant, the project's curator,] asked, do people tell psychologists they’d cross the street to avoid someone who had given them a compliment the previous day?
In fact, Vaillant went on, positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs—protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections—but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.
To illustrate his point, he told a story about one of his “prize” Grant Study men, a doctor and well-loved husband. “On his 70th birthday,” Vaillant said, “when he retired from the faculty of medicine, his wife got hold of his patient list and secretly wrote to many of his longest-running patients, ‘Would you write a letter of appreciation?’ And back came 100 single-spaced, desperately loving letters—often with pictures attached. And she put them in a lovely presentation box covered with Thai silk, and gave it to him.” Eight years later, Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box down from his shelf. “George, I don’t know what you’re going to make of this,” the man said, as he began to cry, “but I’ve never read it.” “It’s very hard,” Vaillant said, “for most of us to tolerate being loved.”