What Makes Us Happy?

Imagine if you could observe 250 individuals over the course of 70 years with insight into everything from what makes them mad to what shoe size they wear? The amount of information collected would be overwhelming. Just ask George Vaillant, he should know.

Dr. Vaillant is concluding the longest running longitudinal study of human behavior in history. For 42 years, Valliant has served as the curator to the study of 268 Harvard graduates who are now approaching the twilight of their lives. A review of the findings of this study reveals both insightful and tragic examples of the complexities of life. Joshua Shenk of The Atlantic gives a very comprehensive journalistic impression of the study and how it has consumed so much of Dr. Vaillant’s time and energy. There is a link to that review here.

There is also a 7 minute video interview with Dr. Vaillant below

While the evaluation of 268 Harvard sophomore men doesn’t represent a very accurate sample of the population, the study still provides some amazing statistics. One such statistic that stands out is that nearly one third of the group had, at one point in time, met the criteria for mental illness. However, beyond statistics lies a collection of life stories which rest on the precipice of hardship, teetering between triumph and failure. The failure of so many well adjusted, privileged, successful young men weighed heavily on the researcher. As the study progressed, Dr. Vaillant began directing the study towards an understanding of what caused some of the men to excel, while others wilted into despair, alcoholism, and eventually death.

As I read Shenk’s review of the study, I was struck by the biblical truths that come to life within these stories behind the statistics. When asked to sum up the totality of over 70 years of measurements and interpretations, Vaillant proposed; “the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people…A man’s authentic relationships at age 47 predict late life adjustments better than any other variable”. Valiant also lists “education, stable marriage, no smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise and a healthy weight” as other indications to an individual’s well-being.

The items in Vaillant’s list of what make a “successful” life make sense. However, think about what is not on that list. Money, business, fame, status, and admiration are not included (and these are Harvard men!). Maybe there is a connection here between the large number of these men developing mental illness and the fact that so many of them had to learn the hard way that what they thought would make them happy was the very thing that made them miserable.

As I seek to learn more and more about God’s will for my own life, I am beginning to see how my natural responses to my circumstances are the very things that make me most dissatisfied. Likewise, the very things that God both commands and expects from us for His glory are ultimately the path to our own satisfaction. What is surprising me is how God’s truth applies not only in eternity, but also in the here and now.

In the 12th chapter of Mark, a teacher of the law asks Jesus what He believes to be the greatest commandment. Jesus replies that the greatest is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. He then mentions the second greatest is to love your neighbor as yourself. Now, I know we would probably agree that these commands have significant eternal consequences. However, should we be surprised if they also have implications in our mortal lives? If we love God with all our heart and soul, it makes selfish ambition in this world difficult. If we develop our mind in understanding God and his creation, won’t we be educating ourselves? If our physical strength is spent on tasks which glorify God, won’t we have to be relatively healthy? And, if we love our neighbor as ourselves, we may experience the very kind of community and authentic relationships which yield contentment and well adjusted lives. That just happens to be the very thing Dr. Vaillant discovered while observing the human condition for nearly half of a century.

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