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 man who made computers personal was a genius and a jerk. A new documentary wonders whether his legacy can accommodate both realities.
An iPhone is a machine much like any other: motherboard, modem, microphone, microchip, battery, wires of gold and silver and copper twisting and snaking, the whole assembly arranged under a piece of glass whose surface—coated with an oxide of indium and tin to make it electrically conductive—sparks to life at the touch of a warm-blooded finger. But an iPhone, too, is much more than a machine. The neat ecosystem that hums under its heat-activated glass holds grocery lists and photos and games and jokes and news and books and music and secrets and the voices of loved ones and, quite possibly, every text you’ve ever exchanged with your best friend. Thought, memory, empathy, the stuff we sometimes shorthand as “the soul”: There it all is, zapping through metal whose curves and coils were designed to be held in a human hand.
In continuing to tinker with the universe she built eight years after it ended, J.K. Rowling might be falling into the same trap as Star Wars’s George Lucas.
September 1st, 2015 marked a curious footnote in Harry Potter marginalia: According to the series’s elaborate timeline, rarely referenced in the books themselves, it was the day James S. Potter, Harry’s eldest son, started school at Hogwarts. It’s not an event directly written about in the books, nor one of particular importance, but their creator, J.K. Rowling, dutifully took to Twitter to announce what amounts to footnote details: that James was sorted into House Gryffindor, just like his father, to the disappointment of Teddy Lupin, Harry’s godson, apparently a Hufflepuff.
It’s not earth-shattering information that Harry’s kid would end up in the same house his father was in, and the Harry Potter series’s insistence on sorting all of its characters into four broad personality quadrants largely based on their family names has always struggled to stand up to scrutiny. Still, Rowling’s tweet prompted much garment-rending among the books’ devoted fans. Can a tweet really amount to a piece of canonical information for a book? There isn’t much harm in Rowling providing these little embellishments years after her books were published, but even idle tinkering can be a dangerous path to take, with the obvious example being the insistent tweaks wrought by George Lucas on his Star Wars series.
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.
According to Franklin, what mattered in business was humility, restraint, and discipline. But today’s Type-A MBAs would find him qualified for little more than a career in middle management.
When he retired from the printing business at the age of 42, Benjamin Franklin set his sights on becoming what he called a “Man of Leisure.” To modern ears, that title might suggest Franklin aimed to spend his autumn years sleeping in or stopping by the tavern, but to colonial contemporaries, it would have intimated aristocratic pretension. A “Man of Leisure” was typically a member of the landed elite, someone who spent his days fox hunting and affecting boredom. He didn’t have to work for a living, and, frankly, he wouldn’t dream of doing so.
Having worked as a successful shopkeeper with a keen eye for investments, Franklin had earned his leisure, but rather than cultivate the fine arts of indolence, retirement, he said, was “time for doing something useful.” Hence, the many activities of Franklin’s retirement: scientist, statesman, and sage, as well as one-man civic society for the city of Philadelphia. His post-employment accomplishments earned him the sobriquet of “The First American” in his own lifetime, and yet, for succeeding generations, the endeavor that was considered his most “useful” was the working life he left behind when he embarked on a life of leisure.
When Kenneth Jarecke photographed an Iraqi man burned alive, he thought it would change the way Americans saw the Gulf War. But the media wouldn’t run the picture.
The Iraqi soldier died attempting to pull himself up over the dashboard of his truck. The flames engulfed his vehicle and incinerated his body, turning him to dusty ash and blackened bone. In a photograph taken soon afterward, the soldier’s hand reaches out of the shattered windshield, which frames his face and chest. The colors and textures of his hand and shoulders look like those of the scorched and rusted metal around him. Fire has destroyed most of his features, leaving behind a skeletal face, fixed in a final rictus. He stares without eyes.
On February 28, 1991, Kenneth Jarecke stood in front of the charred man, parked amid the carbonized bodies of his fellow soldiers, and photographed him. At one point, before he died this dramatic mid-retreat death, the soldier had had a name. He’d fought in Saddam Hussein’s army and had a rank and an assignment and a unit. He might have been devoted to the dictator who sent him to occupy Kuwait and fight the Americans. Or he might have been an unlucky young man with no prospects, recruited off the streets of Baghdad.
Some people see threats even when none are present. Strangely, it can make them more creative.
For much of his life, Isaac Newton seemed like he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In 1693, the collapse finally arrived: After not sleeping for five days straight, Newton sent letters accusing his friends of conspiring against him. He was refraining from publishing books, he said at one point that year, “for fear that disputes and controversies may be raised against me by ignoramuses.”
Newton was, by many accounts, highly neurotic. Brilliant, but neurotic nonetheless. He was prone to depressive jags, mistrust, and angry outbursts.
Unfortunately, his genius might have been rooted in his maladjustments. His mental state led him to brood over past mistakes, and eventually, a breakthrough would dawn. “I keep the subject constantly before me,” he once said, “and wait till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light.”
In Beijing, China marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and its role in defeating Japan, by holding an enormous military parade and declaring a new national holiday. The spectacle involved more than 12,000 troops, 500 pieces of military hardware, and 200 aircraft.
In Beijing, China marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and its role in defeating Japan, by holding an enormous military parade and declaring a new national holiday. The spectacle involved more than 12,000 troops, 500 pieces of military hardware, and 200 aircraft of various types, representing what military officials said were the Chinese military's most cutting-edge technology. While the entire event was a show of strength, Chinese officials insisted the message was about peace, with the logo displayed on posters featuring an image of a dove.
I traveled to every country on earth. In some cases, the adventure started before I could get there.
Last summer, my Royal Air Maroc flight from Casablanca landed at Malabo International Airport in Equatorial Guinea, and I completed a 50-year mission: I had officially, and legally, visited every recognized country on earth.
This means 196 countries: the 193 members of the United Nations, plus Taiwan, Vatican City, and Kosovo, which are not members but are, to varying degrees, recognized as independent countries by other international actors.
In five decades of traveling, I’ve crossed countries by rickshaw, pedicab, bus, car, minivan, and bush taxi; a handful by train (Italy, Switzerland, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, and Greece); two by riverboat (Gabon and Germany); Norway by coastal steamer; Gambia and the Amazonian parts of Peru and Ecuador by motorized canoe; and half of Burma by motor scooter. I rode completely around Jamaica on a motorcycle and Nauru on a bicycle. I’ve also crossed three small countries on foot (Vatican City, San Marino, and Liechtenstein), and parts of others by horse, camel, elephant, llama, and donkey. I confess that I have not visited every one of the 7,107 islands in the Philippine archipelago or most of the more than 17,000 islands constituting Indonesia, but I’ve made my share of risky voyages on the rickety inter-island rustbuckets you read about in the back pages of the Times under headlines like “Ship Sinks in Sulu Sea, 400 Presumed Lost.”
Climate change means the end of our world, but the beginning of another—one with a new set of species and ecosystems.
A few years ago in a lab in Panama, Klaus Winter tried to conjure the future. A plant physiologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, he planted seedlings of 10 tropical tree species in small, geodesic greenhouses. Some he allowed to grow in the kind of environment they were used to out in the forest, around 79 degrees Fahrenheit. Others, he subjected to uncomfortably high temperatures. Still others, unbearably high temperatures—up to a daily average temperature of 95 degrees and a peak of 102 degrees. That’s about as hot as Earth has ever been.
It’s also the kind of environment tropical trees have a good chance of living in by the end of this century, thanks to climate change. Winter wanted to see how they would do.
A tattooed, profanity-loving Lutheran pastor believes young people are drawn to Jesus, tradition, and brokenness.
“When Christians really critique me for using salty language, I literally don’t give a shit.”
This is what it’s like to talk to Nadia Bolz-Weber, the tattooed Lutheran pastor, former addict, and head of a Denver church that’s 250 members strong. She’s frank and charming, and yes, she tends to cuss—colorful words pepper her new book, Accidental Saints. But she also doesn’t put a lot of stock in her own schtick.
“Oh, here’s this tattooed pastor who is a recovering alcoholic who used to be a stand-up comic—that’s interesting for like five minutes,” she said. “The fact that people want to hear from me—that, I really feel, has less to do with me and more to do with a Zeitgeist issue.”