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.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
The neurologist leaves behind a body of work that reveals a lifetime of asking difficult questions with empathy.
Oliver Sacks always seemed propelled by joyful curiosity. The neurologist’s writing is infused with this quality—equal parts buoyancy and diligence, the exuberant asking of difficult questions.
More specifically, Sacks had a fascination with ways of seeing and hearing and thinking. Which is another way of exploring experiences of living. He focused on modes of perception that are delightful not only because they are subjective, but precisely because they are very often faulty.
To say Sacks had a gift for this method of exploration is an understatement. He was a master at connecting curiosity to observation, and observation to emotion. Sacks died on Sunday after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis earlier this year. He was 82.
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.
Wine snobs, string quartets, and the limits of intuition
Several months ago, this author sat at a classical music concert, trying to convince himself that wine is not bullshit.
That may seem like a strange thought to have while listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. But Priceonomics had recently posted an article investigating The Price of Wine, part of which reviewed research that cast doubt on both consumers’ and wine experts’ ability to distinguish between quality wine and table wine or identify different wines and their flavors. It seemed a slippery slope to the conclusion that wine culture is nothing more than actors performing a snobbish play.
Listening to an accomplished musician while lacking any musical experience resulted in a feeling familiar to casual wine drinkers imbibing an expensive bottle: Feeling somewhat ambivalent and wondering whether you are convincing yourself that you enjoy it so as not to appear uncultured.
Nervous Democrats are looking for alternatives as Hillary Clinton falters. But is the VP the right person for the job?
“I think panic is the operative mode for the Democratic Party,” David Axelrod, who has been on the receiving end of panic mode many times over the years, told me this week. I had asked Obama’s political guru how bad the current panic was for Hillary Clinton—bad enough for the party to seek an alternative? Bad enough, perhaps, to create an opening for Joe Biden?
Axelrod didn’t think so. “I think it’s indisputable she’s had a rocky few months,” he said. “But if you look at her support among Democrats, and the resources she brings, she’s still very strong—I think she’s going to be the nominee.”
Not everyone is so sure. Public opinion has turned starkly negative on Clinton in recent months, as she has struggled to put the scandal over her use of email as secretary of state to rest. In a poll released this week, the word most commonly summoned when people were asked about her was “liar.”
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.
Trying to find clarity in a world muddied by differing opinions and too much information
The deadlock began around week 20 of my pregnancy, when my mom casually asked about when and where our son would be circumcised. I presumptuously told her we weren’t going to do that. Then I saw the surprised look on my husbands face.
“We’re not?” he asked.
Sensing an opportunity to mount an offensive, my mom backed him with the full force of the guilt-inducing tone she’d perfected over the years. “But honey, it’s not natural to leave your son uncircumcised,” she said. “You don’t want to do that to him, do you?”
Quickly realizing that I would never win a drawn-out argument, I decided to end the conversation. To do this, I summoned the petulant teenager lying dormant inside me—something that only a mom can awaken in a 33-year-old woman—and said, “Actually mom, circumcision is the exact opposite of natural. That’s the whole point, to do away with the ‘natural’.” Then I gave my husband the ‘you’d like to have sex with me again, right?’ look and said to him, “We’ll talk about this later.”
On the desperation behind the migrant tragedy in Austria
On Thursday, as Krishnadev Calamur has been tracking in The Atlantic’s new Notes section, Austrian authorities made a ghastly discovery: a truck abandoned in the emergency lane of a highway near the Hungarian border, packed with the decomposing bodies of 59 men, eight women, and four children. They are thoughtto be the corpses of migrants who suffocated to death, perhaps two days earlier, in the bowels of a vehicle whose back door was locked shut and refrigeration and ventilation systems weren’t functional. Stray identity documents suggest that at least some of the victims were Syrian—refugees from that country’s brutal civil war. The truck featured an image of a chicken and a slogan from the Slovakian poultry company that the lorry once belonged to: “I taste so good because they feed me so well.”
Dealing with misinformation, feeling powerless, and slowly getting better together
I thought the article would validate my husband’s experience. That’s why I emailed him the link to the decade-old New York magazine article about his alma mater, the American Boychoir School for vocal prodigies, where alumni from as late as the 1990s estimate that one in five boys were molested. Boys like Travis.
“It used to feel like an isolated incident that affected just me," Trav said.
It was the end of my workday on an October afternoon; I had just set my keys on the kitchen table. My coat was still buttoned.
“Now I know I spent nearly three years of my childhood at a boarding school not just with random pedophiles, but in a culture that allowed it.”
As his wife, how do I respond? That he survived? That he’s brave? That he’s a hero for letting me talk about it? That I will stand beside him with a personal mission and public vow that nobody will ever hurt him, physically or emotionally, again, the way they did during his 30 months as a choirboy from 1988 to 1990?.