I usually say that my years at Harvard were a bit of a desert in terms of inspired teaching, but that’s not entirely true.
Long before the present government got hold of happiness as a good issue to distract us all from economic decline, psychiatrist George Vaillant taught a course called Adaptations to Life — part of his lifelong quest to solve the question of what makes a good life.
I came across a fascinating article in Atlantic Monthly about Vaillant while searching for something else (ah, the internet) and it updated me on what the great man’s been up to since I left his class in 1977. He’s been following the Grant Study begun in 1942 of a group of Harvard undergraduates — how they started out in life, how they lived, how they ended up. They’re 89 now (their identities are protected, but the group included JFK), which makes it the longest in-depth psychological study ever conducted.
Back in 1977, Vaillant taught that the quality of a person’s defence mechanisms is key. Humour, sublimation, altruism — all good. Psychotic denial, you’ll be shocked to hear, not so good — along with paranoia, hallucination and passive aggression.
The ability to form close relationships turns out to be the best predictor of a happy life. “It is social aptitude,” Vaillant writes, “not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging…the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”
The men in the Grant Study rated Happy-Well (as opposed to Sad-Sick) at the age of eighty ranked positive for five or six of the following characteristics at fifty: education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, and healthy weight.
No mention of money, you”ll notice. Or beauty. Or owning a Range Rover.
Or even appearing on the bestseller lists.