Longitudinal study tells us what makes people happy

July 11, 2009 | By | 20 Replies More

What makes people happy? On quite a few occasions, I’ve posted at DI with regard to ideas that I learned through reading various books and articles (a search for “happiness” in the DI search box will give you dozens of articles).  What does that reveal about me, I wonder?

Today, I had the pleasure of reading an extraordinarily thoughtful article on this same topic:  “What Makes Us Happy?”  by Joshua Wolf Shenk appears in the June 2009 edition of The Atlantic. You’ll find an abridged edition of the article here.

Shenk’s article is anchored by the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest running longitudinally study of mental and physical well-being in history. It was begun in 1937 in order to study “well-adjusted Harvard sophomores (all male), and it has followed its subject for more than 70 years.”  The study was originally known as “The Grant Study,” in that it was originally funded by W.T. Grant. Despite all odds, the study has survived to this day–many of the subjects are now in their upper 80’s.  Along the way,  the study was  supplemented with a separate study launched in 1937 dedicated to studying juvenile delinquents in inner-city Boston (run by criminologists Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck).

Image by janpietruszka at dreamstime.com (with permission)

Image by janpietruszka at dreamstime.com (with permission)

You’ll enjoy Joshua Shenk’s work on many levels. He writes with precision, providing you with a deep understanding of the featured longitudinal studies. You will also enjoy his seemingly effortless ability to spin engaging stories (there are dozens of stories within his article) and his exceptional skill at crafting highly readable prose. I’m writing this post as a dare, then. Go forth and read Shenk’s article and I guarantee that you will be thoroughly enriched and appreciative.

The Atlantic also provided a video interview of George Vaillant, now 74, who since 1967 has dedicated his career to running and analyzing the Grant Study.  As you’ll see from Shenk’s article, Vaillant  is an exceptional storyteller himself. The Atlantic article, then, might remind you of one of those Russian dolls, and that is a storyteller telling the story of another storyteller who tell stories of hundreds of other storytellers. For more than 40 years, Vaillant has not only gathered reams of technical data, but he has poured his energy into interviewing the subjects and their families and melding all of that data into compellingly detailed vignettes of the subjects. Telling stories is not ultimately what the study was supposed to be about, of course, and Vaillant also tells us what those stories mean for the rest of us.  Truly, what makes people happy?  Vaillant offers answers that you will be tempted to immediately apply to your own situation.

Vaillant has a lot to say about “adaptations,” how people respond to the challenges they face in life.  As a Shenk explains, Vaillant sees mental adaptations as analogous to biological processes. To stay healthy, we must deal with emotional onslaughts, but there are better and worse ways to do this. Some of the unhealthy adaptations would include paranoia, hallucinations or megalomania. Almost as bad are “immature adaptations” such as acting out, hypochondria, projection and fantasy. For normal people, neurotic defenses are common, is things such as intellectualization, dissociation and repression. The best way to adapt, however would be to employ altruism, humor, suppression, sublimation or planning for the future.

Valliant has identified seven factors that predict healthy aging:

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 man 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% 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. . . . 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, it significantly 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.”

There is a treasure trove of other critical findings in the Atlantic article. You’ll find that ongoing exercise in college predicts late-life mental health. As you will probably expect, depression turns out to be a major risk factor for physical health. Personality traits largely predicted who would become a Democrat (those who are sensitive, cultural and introspective) and Republicans (pragmatic and organized) (this correlates with findings by Frank Sulloway). Vaillant has found that alcoholism is “the horse and not the cart a pathology.” It is often post hoc confabulation that leads people to argue that they started drinking only after a problem arose and provoked it.

Vaillant also concludes that warm social connections are critical to happiness-if not found in parents, they can be based on relationships with siblings, friends and extended relatives).  In conclusion, Vaillant holds that “the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships with other people.”


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Category: American Culture, Community, Friendships/relationships, Health, Meaning of Life, Networking, Psychology Cognition, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (20)

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  1. Paul says:

    Sandwiches make me happy. Good article!

  2. Karl says:

    Erich summarizes this article saying" "the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships with other people.”

    The article states this:

    "Of course, happiness scientists have come up with all kinds of straightforward, and actionable, findings: that money does little to make us happier once our basic needs are met; that marriage and faith lead to happiness (or it could be that happy people are more likely to be married and spiritual); that temperamental “set points” for happiness—a predisposition to stay at a certain level of happiness—account for a large, but not overwhelming, percentage of our well-being."

    I would state that there are two types of relationships that matter, these are one's relationships to the significant values one trusts and believes in, and the second is one's relationships with significant others that you believe you share these same values with.

    People that are "happy" have a good match between their personally held values and their associations with others that they believe share the same values.

    Most people will do whatever they think is necessary to achieve as good of a match between these two as they can arrive at.

    Sometimes, people change their values to accommodate their peer group, other times people will look for other associates if they decide their values are too greatly compromised.

    Then there is the case of the peer group caring little about significant values and will only allow their ideas about the types of peers they desire to guide their interactions.

    The only problem with this is that there still are values that govern the types of people they themselves desire to be, and the types of people they would like everyone else to be like as well.

    When others have values diametrically opposed to their own, do they wish others to change, or do they wish to change themselves to become like others?

    This is the fundamental stuff that happiness and frustration are really based upon. Fundamentalists of many creeds desire to change others by nearly any mean and sometimes will use intrusive force as well.

    For these people, relationships with people are not just as important as their own personally held values and opinions. They can't be happy unless others accept their values.

    A happy and secure person however holds personal values of long lasting duration that have been reinforced by their relationships with others and which can not easily be threatened with change by the culture around them.

    A happy and secure person can understand why others would chose the values they do, but not understand why others would desire to change the values of others unless they held that their values were more important than relationships with people.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Karl: I was quoting the article when I wrote: “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships with other people.”

      The on-line version that I assume you are reading is abridged.

  3. Karl says:

    Sorry to leave the wrong impression.

    I did read the abridged article from the Atlantic Web site that was linked in your article.

    You are correct that I couldn't see the quote from he abridged version. However, from what you wrote, the author seems to believe its true, as do you.

    I still believe the author has only part of the picture when he states “the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships with other people.”

    For starters a relationship is not "a thing" as if relationships are something detached from who we are as human beings, they are a part of who we are. They exists on at least two levels, intrapersonal and interpersonal.

    I would still state that there are two types of relationships that matter, these are one’s relationships to the significant values one trusts and believes in, and the second is one’s relationships with significant others that you believe you share these same values with.

  4. Tony Coyle says:


    your logic is unsound. Relationships (you say) are not 'things', and you go on to state unequivocally that they exist only on the inter- and intra-personal levels. So far so internally consistent.

    You then state in the very next sentence that "one’s relationships to the significant values one trusts and believes in" is a 'relationship' that matters.

    According to your restricted viewpoint, how in hell can I have a 'relationship' with something as intangible as a value? Furthermore, if you allow such 'relationships' then you are ascribing entity status to the immaterial 'values'. In such a case, ascribing entity status to relationships themselves is entirely appropriate. Refusal to do so is completely and utterly arbitrary, unless you'd like to explain why immaterial 'values' may be a valid partner in a relationship, but the relationship itself is not itself an entity absent the partnering elements.

    Relationships are 'special classes' of entities, that define a tuple, but can do so explicitly 'John' 'eats' 'Pepperoni Pizza', or implicitly 'Person' 'eats' 'food': eats(John, Pizza) vs eats(person,food) in a more common grammar. You can play the 'real or not' game all you like, but in common parlance, the entity relationship 'eats' is a thing, just as much as 'person' 'food' John' or 'pizza' is a thing. Trying to pretend it's not, while ascribing thingness to equally immaterial concepts is not even wrong.

  5. Tony,

    To be fair here, I think Karl meant the Personification of a value, based on the resonance one feels toward another person insofar as world views coincide.

    However, that being the case, one would be hardpressed to explain a match like Mary Matelin and James Carville…

  6. Karl says:

    Tony does not find it reasonable to consider that the individual person can have a 'relationship' that matters to ideas and beliefs or any other such non corporal entities.

    This is like what many people hold, that relationships are a part of a strictly physical world and the interaction of physical beings and objects. One is happy therefore when significant others and/or external circumstances rub them the right way.

    Tony states:

    "You then state in the very next sentence that “one’s relationships to the significant values one trusts and believes in” is a ‘relationship’ that matters."

    Why in the "world" would someone hold to values at all unless they were part of their identity and therefore related to who the person is, aka – what most people would call a relationship?

    People who appear to be diametrically opposed to each other in values (eg. Mary Matelin and James Carville), but who still stay in relationship value their relationship to each other more than their relationship to their separate values and beliefs.

    People once in an ongoing relationship, who part and go their own ways find their relationships to their disparate values and beliefs (demons) stronger than their relationship to each other.

    This isn't rocket science, but it does take a willingness to see the world from a spiritual or psychological perspective and not a merely physical one.

  7. Karl writes:—"Why in the “world” would someone hold to values at all unless they were part of their identity and therefore related to who the person is, aka – what most people would call a relationship?"

    I am in complete simpatico with this. Good question.

    However, I can understand people being suspicious of the formulation because sometimes you find people who espouse a set of values only to discover that in private they are not like that at all—and even lie to themselves about the divergence. Values are tricky. There's a difference between adhering to, shall we say, a program that is value-based and actually living according to and in sympathy with an in-built set of values. Finding one's way through that Scylla and Charybdis of appearance and substance is part of the "getting to know you" phase of a relationship.

    For example, when I was a callow youth, I had a number of very frustrating conversations with young ladies with whom I'd wanted a relationship and most of them went in a predictable fashion.

    "I want to know who YOU are." (They would say.)

    "I'm a photographer," I would say. (At the time, that was my major endeavor.)

    "That's what you DO, I want to know who you ARE."

    "What I do, IS what I am."

    Shortly thereafter, the relationship would end, because I was not giving them what they sought. I didn't understand the question. I thought I was being perfectly honest.

    Then I ran into one that took it a step further. The next statement she made was:

    "No, what you DO is a reflection of who are ARE, it is not who you actually ARE. I want to know WHY you do what you do. Then I'll know who you ARE."

    Very next level stuff, that, and it left me flatfooted. She was right, of course. What you do you do out of a motive, a drive, a seeking after, and that part is essential to who you are and only manifests as what you do. What you do is the shell around the passion, not the passion. I couldn't answer her because I'd never thought of it that way, but it started the process of figuring out for myself who I was and am. Those core values, as Karl might say.

    But most people just look for the matching shape of what they do.

  8. Karl says:

    Mark, I agree that "what we do" is often not who we are, although "how" we do 'what we do externally' often does reflect a great deal on who we are internally.

    This is the passion and motivational side of life that certainly ties in directly with the values that can transform our relationships with "anything" or with "anyone" into significant relationships that we prioritize to one degree or another.

    As I see it whether we consider people, objects, values or relationships as simply "things" along some spectrum of mental constructs reflects our individual ways of prioritizing their importance or significance to our existence.

    We all know we should value people more than objects, but there are many people who really don't treat certain people much differently than simple objects.

    Some people use object lessons to teach about people and relationships, other people use people to indicate what they value about their objects and what external behaviors they seem to prefer.

  9. Tony Coyle says:


    You said Tony does not find it reasonable to consider that the individual person can have a ‘relationship’ that matters to ideas and beliefs or any other such non corporal entities.

    This could not be further from the truth. My only issue was with your stance that 'relationships' were somehow neither tangible, describable, nor memetically transferable as you believe 'values' to be.

    If you read my comment again, without quote-mining only the introduction to my comment, you'll note that I accept material & immaterial as postulated 'entities' – I simply require that you also accept the 'relationship' as equally real.

    You railed against relationships as 'things' before. Do you still do so?

    I think part of the confusion here is the use of the term: to me the relationship is a thing that describes a connection between two otherwise disparate things.

    In common parlance, you can be 'in a relationship' (e.g. Carville & Matelin; my wife & I). You can 'have a relationship with' X, Y, or Z (I have a relationship with Art that informs much of my thinking and my 'aesthetic'). But when we seek to categorize these 'relationships', then they (relationships) are indeed 'things' in the sense that they are describable and independent one from the other. Calling them things is no different than calling your values or emotions 'things'.

  10. Karl says:

    Tony, my issue with the use of the generic term "thing" is that people and relationships are more important to me than material objects and if they are all discribed and lumped into the same categorization as simply things then misplaced priorities can easily confuse people and relationships as less important than material objects.

    I consider a part of a person's identity to be directly connected to the relationship people have with both other people and the values (altruistic or not) that they adhere to.

    I believe it is fair to say that many people treat other people the way they do because of the relationship they have with their internalized values.

    Some people grab for personal gain/greed/profit at the expense of other people and will only consider using their personal wealth to help others when forced to do so. Some will even do all they can to hide their wealth from others for the same reasons.

    Some willingly decide to relinquish gain/greed/profit and return some of the value of their personal possessions to help others.

    No matter which category one finds oneself in, these are definite significant values that are totally dependent upon the individuals relationships with other people and/or their material wealth.

    Sorry to have to say that I still do not wish to call relationships "things," this permits too many people to consider relationships of an equal or lesser value than their possessions.

  11. I respect what Karl is doing here. He's being a bit more precise than Americans usually are in his use of language. "Things" tend to refer to abstractions, collections of disparate objects, usually material. We get loose in our language and make short-cuts and Thing is one those words that gets drafted into general-purpose field work. It is, however, context driven.

    When, for example, we're talking about two people who are having a relationship, sometimes we'll refer to them as "having a thing." It's a euphemism, usually for a specific type of relationship (romance, sexual) which we try to be coy about. In the context of a given conversation, we know exactly what is being referred to, and I doubt any intention to denigrate or demote the importance (or lack thereof) of the relationship exists. It's just code, if you will.

    In the other direction, however, we must admit that people do develop relationships—in a very full sense of the word—with objects. For example, musical instruments. Any musician will know at once what I'm talking about. You learn an instrument, become familiar with it, develop rituals around it, it acquires meaning often in the same sense (if not to the same reciprocal degree) as a relationship with a person. Artists develop relationships with their art form that is, for all intents and purposes, fully emotional and sentient.

    That is one of the things people do—we personify "things." Just the same, we objectify people. It goes both ways. Should or shouldn't has no meaning here—it's what we do. The only question is if one or both practices, in a given instance, becomes unhealthy.

    As a writer of fiction I can tell you without a moment's hesitation or embarrassment that my work is as much a relationship as my life with my wife. We recognized that early on, that the nature of engagement with a demanding art form (or for that matter nearly any discipline requiring a tremendous amount of commitment, even obsession) takes on all the attributes of another partner. I believe one of the chief reasons that many, many artists have such difficulty in their relationships with spouses or lovers is a result of not recognizing that the Art, the Work, is as much a partner in the relationship as another person.

    We end up with a spectrum, then, that is partly defined by our own assignation of status to whatever we may be discussing at the moment. The fact that a guitar, a car, a house, a boat, what have you can have status almost on par with another human being says less about the object (which has no real say in the matter) than it does about the individual assigning that status. Such assignation becomes a manifestation of an externalized personality, a external component to identity.

    Likewise, the fact that disregard to fellow humans is common shows how such status can be withheld or never assigned to begin with, so that strangers, people in other towns or countries, end of objectified simply because there is no personal reason to subjectify them.

    But the language, as I said, tends to allow us to move through these choices without a lot of thought.

  12. Dan Klarmann says:

    Karl has led us into another interesting, yet arguably fruitless, semantic romp. Q: Is a relationship a "thing"? A: Is zero a number?

    If you consider any semantic entity to be a thing, then a relationship certainly qualifies as a thing. But a "thing" does not imply a physical object with independent existence.

    A relationship is a dependent thing that requires two other things for it to exist, like a tightrope or a conversation. A tightrope is a relationship between two or more objects. Without at least two other objects, it semantically disintegrates into just a rope. A one man conversation is just babbling to oneself. Much like me, here.

  13. Damn, Dan…that was much more eloquent and cogent than my ramble. Thank you.

  14. Tony Coyle says:

    Indeed, Dan – stop making me look bad by writing clearly and concisely!

    This is a BLOG! We're supposed to use as many words as we can! And leave room for confusion so we can keep the thread alive!

    I still think that thing is a relevant choice — the problem is when one disallows common categorizations without stating the rationale for imposing such category limitations. In doing such one is the instigator of another thread where all we do is spew semantics at each other for a few (dozen) comments.

    Oh goody!

    Again! Again!

  15. Alison says:

    Arguments over semantics can be fun, except when they're less interesting than the topics from which they sprang.

    I read the web article, watched the video, and it seemed pretty darned clear to me what was meant by Erich's quote even if it wasn't included in what I read or saw. It's a simple matter of connecting the dots. All the behavioral categories indicated how the behaviors affected social interaction, how the subject perceived others, and/or how the subject was perceived by others. The subjects' relationships with their parents, siblings, spouses, were all significant not only because of how the subjects represented them, but also because of the similarity or lack thereof between the subjects' descriptions and the reports from outside observers.

    Yes, the word "thing" can be a fairly generic one, and can be applied to both tangible and intangible, um,things. Relationship can describe a correlation, a commonality; it can be between a living being and an object or concept that has great importance to that being; it can be a mutual connection of any degree between two or more living beings and encompass a range of emotions, level of connectedness, or magnitude of importance between/among the related beings.

    The study quite clearly includes both tangibles and intangibles in its lists of "things" that contribute to the various end results. There's no point in arguing about that word. Really.

    However, the relationships that are the most important of these things are clearly interpersonal. Between the subject and his family, friends, peers, etc. The article and video also addressed the apparent correlations between alcohol use, smoking, and exercise in the subjects' lives, but most certainly did not describe the subjects as having relationships with booze or cigarettes or situps. To infer that anything other than relationships with other human beings was addressed when that word was used is to project a personal agenda onto this study that simply doesn't exist.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Alison: Thank you. That is how I interpreted the quote. Unfortunately, I handed the article to a friend after reading it, so I don't have access to the print version in order to re-visit the context. But I'm almost certain that what you have described was the context.

  16. Karl says:

    So does anyone here on DI consider that individuals people by their very nature are both internally and externally relational?

  17. Of course, Karl…it's a continuum. But it's not completely linear—all sorts of coincidental "stuff" gets swept up in the flow of relational associations.

  18. Karl says:

    So if humans can be considered internally relational to the various facets that makes up their various mental thoughts, ideas, beliefs, opinions, choices and inclinations, how can anything they think ever be considered to be a totally objective thought when each of these "things" is to some degree is also considered to be a part of the individual?

    Is it ever possible for an external relatedness (objectiveness) to entirely replace the internal relatedness (subjectiveness)?

    I would say as a human that complete objectiveness (Spock like) is entirely impossisble and that happiness is always a personal matter that never exists in any external relationships, only what we sometimes consider to be external (related to others) but it is still related to our perception of others and their interactions with us that enables us to find happiness or not.

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