A new study from the U.K. confirms the conventional wisdom: friends and exercise make us happy. But it also shows how unhappy people drag us down.
The idea that unhappiness leads to bad consequences is not a new one. But several recent studies have added a bit of nuance to the long-standing general beliefs of "Think Well, Be Well" and the impact of positive thinking on a person's recovery and health.
In the longitudinal, 70-year "Grant Study" of Harvard undergraduates that formed the basis of the June 2009 "What Makes Us Happy" cover story in The Atlantic, researcher George Valliant found a clear link between depression and health problems. Of the men in the study who reported signs of depression at age 50, 70 percent had died or were chronically ill by age 65.
But correlation is not the same thing as causation. Did the depression cause the illness or early death? Or did the two simply go hand in hand? Both Valliant and the authors of a new book, The Longevity Project, came to the same conclusion: sadness does not make you sick any more than happiness makes you well.
The Longevity Project is based on the results of a longitudinal study instigated by psychologist Lewis Terman (and therefore known as the "Terman Study"). The Terman study followed a group of 1,500 Californians over eight decades, starting in 1921. All of the children selected for the Terman study were judged to be of high IQ and, therefore--at least in theory--people who had high potential for living long, happy, successful, and productive lives. The Grant Study participants, all of whom were students at Harvard, were considered to have the same potential.
Although Valliant focused on what factors led to a happy and productive life, and Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin, the authors of The Longevity Project, looked primarily at what factors led to a long life, both investigative teams found that being bright didn't guarantee anything. They also came to the same conclusions about health and happiness: namely, that there were certain lifestyle patterns that seemed to lead to both happiness and health, just as there were other lifestyle paths and patterns that seemed to lead to both sadness and sickness. But being sad and being sick were both separate, resultant outcomes of those lifestyles, rather than a cause-and-effect pair.
All three researchers concluded that one of the biggest factors in both a happy life and a long life was having strong and healthy social connections. Beyond that, the people who tended to have "happy-well" outcomes were conscientious, emotionally healthy individuals who set and actively pursued goals; who incorporated strong social networks, exercise and "healthy" eating/drinking habits organically into their everyday lives; who were optimistic but not to the point of being careless or reckless; social enough to form strong networks, but not so social as to pursue unhealthy habits for peer approval; and who felt engaged and satisfied in their careers, marriages, and friendships.
According to Friedman and Martin, however, there's one area where unhappiness does seem to play a causal role. It may not directly sicken or shorten the life of the person experiencing the unhappiness. But it apparently can be toxic for people who have to live with that unhappy person. Unlike the Grant Study, which interviewed only the Harvard men, the Terman study also interviewed the spouses of the people in the study, to gauge their impact on study participants' lives. And in the Terman study, women married to unhappy men tended to be unhealthier, and live shorter lives, than women married to happy men. Oddly, the reverse was not true. The happiness of the woman had very little effect on the lifespan or happiness of her husband.
The explanation Friedman and Martin came up with for this initially puzzling result was that--especially for the Terman subjects, who were all born around 1910--a man married to an unhappy wife could get away from her influence through work and outside activities. But a woman in that era, married to an unhappy man, was more likely to be trapped in a world poisoned by that unhappiness.
Those results are echoed in the "first-wave" findings of a new longitudinal study just getting underway in Britain. In 2009, the U.K.'s state-funded Economic and Social Research Council commissioned a longitudinal research study called "Understanding Society" to follow 100,000 people in 40,000 households over the next few decades to try to determine what factors lead to improved family lives.
The first-wave (e.g. first-year) findings of that study have just been published. And one of the data points the study reported was that the happiness of children in a household (aged 10 to 21, living at home) is significantly affected by the happiness of their mother--or, at least her happiness in terms of her marriage. Only 55 percent of children whose mothers reported that they were unhappy in their marriages said they were completely happy at home, versus 73 percent of those whose mothers reported being very happy in their marriages. The happiness of the fathers was less significant.
There are a lot of caveats that need to be applied to the U.K. study, of course. First, the results represent a single, self-reported data point, not a long view over time. So it's a bit early to give too much weight to the British results. The Grant and Terman studies also included quantifiable health and death data as well as the interviewer's interpretation of each individual's responses as a check to people's self-reports. What's more, the U.K. study report didn't note what percentage of the study group's mothers worked or stayed at home all day, or who did the primary caregiving for the children involved, so the data is lacking a bit of context.
Generally speaking, however, women still tend to spend more time with children than their husbands do, and provide a greater share of the childcare. And if Friedman and Martin's conclusion is correct, that unhappiness poisons those who are, for whatever reason, trapped in its company and under its influence ... then the Understanding Society results make sense.
The Understanding Society study is only in its first year, of course, and it's not clear how much detail will be collected from each subject over time, given that the study size is so large. In any event, it will be years before the researchers can determine the long-term impact of the parents' unhappiness is on the children in the study.
But the Terman study and the first-wave survey results of the Understanding Society study both make it clear that while unhappiness itself may not what makes unhappy people sick, it might very well be toxic to the people around them. And that's regardless of what other healthy personality, lifestyle habits, or other factors those people may have going for them. Unhappiness, in other words, may be a bit like second-hand smoke. And while it may not be quite as directly lethal, it's a whole lot harder to regulate.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Why the ingrained expectation that women should desire to become parents is unhealthy
In 2008, Nebraska decriminalized child abandonment. The move was part of a "safe haven" law designed to address increased rates of infanticide in the state. Like other safe-haven laws, parents in Nebraska who felt unprepared to care for their babies could drop them off in a designated location without fear of arrest and prosecution. But legislators made a major logistical error: They failed to implement an age limitation for dropped-off children.
Within just weeks of the law passing, parents started dropping off their kids. But here's the rub: None of them were infants. A couple of months in, 36 children had been left in state hospitals and police stations. Twenty-two of the children were over 13 years old. A 51-year-old grandmother dropped off a 12-year-old boy. One father dropped off his entire family -- nine children from ages one to 17. Others drove from neighboring states to drop off their children once they heard that they could abandon them without repercussion.
The Nebraska state government, realizing the tremendous mistake it had made, held a special session of the legislature to rewrite the law in order to add an age limitation. Governor Dave Heineman said the change would "put the focus back on the original intent of these laws, which is saving newborn babies and exempting a parent from prosecution for child abandonment. It should also prevent those outside the state from bringing their children to Nebraska in an attempt to secure services."
It was widely seen as a counter-argument to claims that poor people are "to blame" for bad decisions and a rebuke to policies that withhold money from the poorest families unless they behave in a certain way. After all, if being poor leads to bad decision-making (as opposed to the other way around), then giving cash should alleviate the cognitive burdens of poverty, all on its own.
Sometimes, science doesn't stick without a proper anecdote, and "Why I Make Terrible Decisions," a comment published on Gawker's Kinja platform by a person in poverty, is a devastating illustration of the Science study. I've bolded what I found the most moving, insightful portions, but it's a moving and insightful testimony all the way through.
As the public’s fear and loathing surge, the frontrunner’s durable candidacy has taken a dark turn.
MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina—All politicians, if they are any good at their craft, know the truth about human nature.
Donald Trump is very good, and he knows it better than most.
Trump stands alone on a long platform, surrounded by a rapturous throng. Below and behind him—sitting on bleachers and standing on the floor—they fill this city’s cavernous, yellow-beige convention center by the thousands. As Trump will shortly point out, there are a lot of other Republican presidential candidates, but none of them get crowds anything like this.
Trump raises an orange-pink hand like a waiter holding a tray. “They are not coming in from Syria,” he says. “We’re sending them back!” The crowd surges, whistles, cheers. “So many bad things are happening—they have sections of Paris where the police are afraid to go,” he continues. “Look at Belgium, the whole place is closed down! We can’t let it happen here, folks.”
Better-informed consumers are ditching the bowls of sugar that were once a triumph of 20th-century marketing.
Last year, General Mills launched a new product aimed at health-conscious customers: Cheerios Protein, a version of its popular cereal made with whole-grain oats and lentils. Early reviews were favorable. The cereal, Huffington Post reported, tasted mostly like regular Cheerios, although “it seemed like they were sweetened and flavored a little more aggressively.” Meanwhile, ads boasted that the cereal would offer “long-lasting energy” as opposed to a sugar crash.
But earlier this month, the Center for Science in the Public Interest sued General Mills, saying that there’s very little extra protein in Cheerios Protein compared to the original brand and an awful lot more sugar—17 times as much, in fact. So why would General Mills try to market a product as containing protein when it’s really a box fill of carbs and refined sugar?
The statesman understood something most diplomats don’t: history—and how to apply it.
In his new biography of Henry Kissinger, the historian Niall Ferguson recalls that halfway through what became an eight-year research project, he had an epiphany. Tracing the story of how a young man from Nazi Germany became America’s greatest living statesman, he discovered not only the essence of Kissinger’s statecraft, but the missing gene in modern American diplomacy: an understanding of history.
For Ferguson, it was a humbling revelation. As he confesses in the introduction to Kissinger: “In researching the life and times of Henry Kissinger, I have come to realize that my approach was unsubtle. In particular, I had missed the crucial importance in American foreign policy of the history deficit: The fact that key decision-makers know almost nothing not just of other countries’ pasts but also of their own. Worse, they often do not see what is wrong with their ignorance.”
Can we predict romantic prospects just from looking at a face?
By the time you swear you're his, / Shivering and sighing. / And he vows his passion is/ Infinite, undying. / Lady, make a note of this — /One of you is lying. ― Dorothy Parker
Edward Royzman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, asks me to list four qualities on a piece of paper: physical attractiveness, income, kindness, and fidelity. Then he gives me 200 virtual “date points” that I’m to distribute among the four traits. The more I allocate to each attribute, the more highly I supposedly value that quality in a mate.
This experiment, which Royzman sometimes runs with his college classes, is meant to inject scarcity into hypothetical dating decisions in order to force people to prioritize.
Students at Princeton University are protesting the ways it honors the former president, who once threw a civil-rights leader out of the White House.
The Black Justice League, in protests on Princeton University’s campus, has drawn wider attention to an inconvenient truth about the university’s ultimate star: Woodrow Wilson. The Virginia native was racist, a trait largely overshadowed by his works as Princeton’s president, as New Jersey’s governor, and, most notably, as the 28th president of the United States.
As president, Wilson oversaw unprecedented segregation in federal offices. It’s a shameful side to his legacy that came to a head one fall afternoon in 1914 when he threw the civil-rights leader William Monroe Trotter out of the Oval Office.
Trotter led a delegation of blacks to meet with the president on November 12, 1914 to discuss the surge of segregation in the country. Trotter, today largely forgotten, was a nationally prominent civil-rights leader and newspaper editor. In the early 1900s, he was often mentioned in the same breath as W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. But unlike Washington, Trotter, an 1895 graduate of Harvard, believed in direct protest actions. In fact, Trotter founded his Boston newspaper, The Guardian, as a vehicle to challenge Washington’s more conciliatory approach to civil rights.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.