Thursday, May 14, 2009

How to be Happy

The Grant Study, a longitudinal survey following Harvard men from college to death, began in the mid-thirties. I just finished reading an article about it in the Atlantic. The study is acquiring data on what makes people healthy, happy, and live long, which seems to be a working definition of happiness.

George Vaillant, the study's author, or producer, names several elements to produce happiness: exercise, abstinence from alcohol and tobacco, education, stable marriage, and normal weight. Well, we do what we can. Another factor is the use of "mature defenses," altruism and sublimation, comparmentalizing (displacement), intellecutalization; rather than projection et cetera with which neurotics are so familiar.

Dr. Vaillant believes in data collection but also the power of narrative and his students are told to be ready for "obscure literary references" such as Anna Karenina, the Doll's House, and Death of a Salesman. Oh dear (that these are obscure, I mean). He says the material of these men's lives is worthy of a Russian novelist.

I would love to hear Tolstoy on the subject of altruism as a defense, but never mind. I am familiar w/ Dr. Vaillant's work after working in addictions therapy for many years. He is a seminal thinker, and I appreciate his work so much. (I also knew his first wife Nancy, in whose living room the Boston chapter of NOW was begun--collateral benefit from their divorce?) But the main thing I'm mulling is something else. Perhaps it's not fair to ask, having not read the giant study, but why is happiness and health held out as the summum bonum. Is there something more meaningful than one's own personal happiness? Is there a higher desideratum to pursue than even health? (To me, of course, that would be Jesus, saving one's soul, serving the world et cetera)

Well I'm sure the scientists would say yes, that religious faith is very good for health and happiness! (Oh good grief!) And I'm forgetting that the study is entitled to have a topic of what factors contribute to health and longevity; it doesn't claim to offer the answer to the riddle of existence. But there's just something so AMERICAN about the approach.

There, having sublimated for a while, think I'll go overeat for a bit. Have a good day.


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