Psychology June 2009

What Makes Us Happy?

Is there a formula—some mix of love, work, and psychological adaptation—for a good life? For 72 years, researchers at Harvard have been examining this question, following 268 men who entered college in the late 1930s through war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and old age. Here, for the first time, a journalist gains access to the archive of one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history. Its contents, as much literature as science, offer profound insight into the human condition—and into the brilliant, complex mind of the study’s longtime director, George Vaillant.

Case No. 141

What happened to you?

You grew up in a kind of fairy tale, in a big-city brownstone with 11 rooms and three baths. Your father practiced medicine and made a mint. When you were a college sophomore, you described him as thoughtful, funny, and patient. “Once in awhile his children get his goat,” you wrote, “but he never gets sore without a cause.” Your mother painted and served on prominent boards. You called her “artistic” and civic-minded.

As a child, you played all the sports, were good to your two sisters, and loved church. You and some other boys from Sunday school—it met at your house—used to study the families in your neighborhood, choosing one every year to present with Christmas baskets. When the garbageman’s wife found out you had polio, she cried. But you recovered fully, that was your way. “I could discover no problems of importance,” the study’s social worker concluded after seeing your family. “The atmosphere of the home is one of happiness and harmony.”

At Harvard, you continued to shine. “Perhaps more than any other boy who has been in the Grant Study,” the staff noted about you, “the following participant exemplifies the qualities of a superior personality: stability, intelligence, good judgment, health, high purpose, and ideals.” Basically, they were in a swoon. They described you as especially likely to achieve “both external and internal satisfactions.” And you seemed well on your way. After a stint in the Air Force—“the whole thing was like a game,” you said—you studied for work in a helping profession. “Our lives are like the talents in the parable of the three stewards,” you wrote. “It is something that has been given to us for the time being and we have the opportunity and privilege of doing our best with this precious gift.”

And then what happened? You married, and took a posting overseas. You started smoking and drinking. In 1951—you were 31—you wrote, “I think the most important element that has emerged in my own psychic picture is a fuller realization of my own hostilities. In early years I used to pride myself on not having any. This was probably because they were too deeply buried and I unwilling and afraid to face them.” By your mid-30s, you had basically dropped out of sight. You stopped returning questionnaires. “Please, please … let us hear from you,” Dr. Vaillant wrote you in 1967. You wrote to say you’d come see him in Cambridge, and that you’d return the last survey, but the next thing the study heard of you, you had died of a sudden disease.

Dr. Vaillant tracked down your therapist. You seemed unable to grow up, the therapist said. You had an affair with a girl he considered psychotic. You looked steadily more disheveled. You had come to see your father as overpowering and distant, your mother as overbearing. She made you feel like a black sheep in your illustrious family. Your parents had split up, it turns out.

In your last days, you “could not settle down,” a friend told Dr. Vaillant. You “just sort of wandered,” sometimes offering ad hoc therapy groups, often sitting in peace protests. You broke out spontaneously into Greek and Latin poetry. You lived on a houseboat. You smoked dope. But you still had a beautiful sense of humor. “One of the most perplexing and charming people I have ever met in my life,” your friend said. Your obituary made you sound like a hell of a man—a war hero, a peace activist, a baseball fan.

In all Vaillant’s literature—and, by agreement, in this essay, too—the Grant Study men remain anonymous. (Even the numbers on the case studies have been changed.) A handful have publicly identified themselves—including Ben Bradlee, the longtime editor of The Washington Post, who opened his memoir, A Good Life, with his first trip to the study office. John F. Kennedy was a Grant Study man, too, though his files were long ago withdrawn from the study office and sealed until 2040. Ironically, it was the notation of that seal in the archive that allowed me to confirm JFK’s involvement, which has not been recognized publicly before now.

Of course, Kennedy—the heir to ruthless, ambitious privilege; the philanderer of “Camelot”; the paragon of casual wit and physical vigor who, backstage, suffered from debilitating illness—is no one’s idea of “normal.” And that’s the point. The study began in the spirit of laying lives out on a microscope slide. But it turned out that the lives were too big, too weird, too full of subtleties and contradictions to fit any easy conception of “successful living.” Arlie Bock had gone looking for binary conclusions—yeses and nos, dos and don’ts. But the enduring lessons would be paradoxical, not only on the substance of the men’s lives (the most inspiring triumphs were often studies in hardship) but also with respect to method: if it was to come to life, this cleaver-sharp science project would need the rounding influence of storytelling.

In George Vaillant, the Grant Study found its storyteller, and in the Grant Study, Vaillant found a set of data, and a series of texts, suited to his peculiar gifts. A tall man, with a gravelly voice, steel-gray hair, and eyes that can radiate great joy and deep sadness, Vaillant blends the regal bearing of his old-money ancestors, the emotional directness of his psychiatric colleagues, and a genial absentmindedness. (A colleague recalls one day in the 1980s when Vaillant came to the office in his slippers.)

As with many of the men he came to study, Vaillant’s gifts and talents were shaped by his needs and pains. Born in 1934, Vaillant grew up in what he described to me as “blessed circumstances”—living “during the Great Depression with a nurse, a maid, and a cook, but without anybody having so much money that you stared in dismay at the newspapers” as stock prices sagged. And his parents had a storybook romance. They met in Mexico City, where she was the daughter of a prominent expatriate American banker and he was a hotshot archaeologist working on pre-Columbian Aztec digs. When George was 2, he says, his father “gave up being Indiana Jones and became a suit,” first as a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and then as the director of the University Museum at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He was an accomplished man who, his son says, showed little trace of doubt or depression. But one Sunday afternoon in 1945, at home in Devon, Pennsylvania, George Clapp Vaillant, then 44, went out into the yard after a nap. His wife found him by the pool, a revolver next to him and a fatal wound through the mouth. His elder son and namesake, the last to see his father alive, was 10 years old.

Immediately, a curtain of silence fell around the tragedy. “In WASP fashion,” Vaillant says, “it was handled with ‘Let’s get this put away as quickly as possible.’” His mother, Suzannah Beck Vaillant, picked up the children and took them to Arizona. “We never saw our house again,” says Henry Vaillant, George’s younger brother. “We never attended the memorial service. It was just kind of a complete cutoff.”

A few years later, their father’s 25th-reunion book, hardbound in red cloth, arrived in the mail from Harvard College. George spent days with it, spellbound by the photographs and words that showed college students morphing, over the course of a few paragraphs, into 47-year-olds. The seed of interest in longitudinal research had been planted; it germinated decades later in Vaillant’s psychiatric residency and then in the ultimate vein of data he discovered at Harvard. It was 1967, and the Grant Study men were beginning to return for their 25th college reunions. Vaillant was 33. He would spend the rest of his career—and expects to spend the rest of his life—following these men.

The range of his training and the complexity of his own character proved to be crucial to his research. After Harvard College (where he wrote for the Lampoon, the humor magazine, and studied history and literature), Harvard Medical School, and a residency at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, Vaillant studied at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute, which he calls a “temple” to Freud’s ideas. He learned the orthodoxy, which included a literary approach to human lives, bringing theory to bear through deep reading of individual cases. But he also had training in the rigors of data-driven experimental science, including a two-year fellowship at a Skinnerian laboratory, where he studied neurotransmitter levels in pigeons and monkeys. There he learned to use the behaviorist B. F. Skinner’s “cumulative behavioral recorder,” which collapses behaviors across minutes, hours, or days onto a chart to be inspected in a single sitting.

The undertones of psychoanalysis are tragic; Freud dismissed the very idea of “normality” as “an ideal fiction” and famously remarked that he hoped to transform “hysterical misery into common unhappiness.” The spirit of modern social science, by contrast, draws on a brash optimism that the secrets to life can be laid bare. Vaillant is an optimist marinated in tragedy, not just in his life experience, but in his taste. Above his desk hangs a letter from a group of his medical residents to their successors, advising them to prepare for Vaillant’s “obscure literary references” by reading Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Vaillant loves Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, too, and the cartoons of the dark humorist Charles Addams, like the one where several Christmas carolers sing merrily at the Addams family doorstep, while Morticia, Lurch, and Gomez stand on the roof, ready to tip a vat of hot oil on their heads. When his children were small, Vaillant would read them a poem about a tribe of happy-go-lucky bears, who lived in a kind of Eden until a tribe of mangier, smarter bears came along and enslaved them. “I would weep at this story,” remembers his daughter Anne Vaillant. “Dad thought it was funny, and I think somehow it was helpful to him that I had such feelings about it. There was this sort of, ‘This is the way life is.’”

Yet, even as he takes pleasure in poking holes in an innocent idealism, Vaillant says his hopeful temperament is best summed up by the story of a father who on Christmas Eve puts into one son’s stocking a fine gold watch, and into another son’s, a pile of horse manure. The next morning, the first boy comes to his father and says glumly, “Dad, I just don’t know what I’ll do with this watch. It’s so fragile. It could break.” The other boy runs to him and says, “Daddy! Daddy! Santa left me a pony, if only I can just find it!”

The story gets to the heart of Vaillant’s angle on the Grant Study. His central question is not how much or how little trouble these men met, but rather precisely how—and to what effect—they responded to that trouble. His main interpretive lens has been the psychoanalytic metaphor of “adaptations,” or unconscious responses to pain, conflict, or uncertainty. Formalized by Anna Freud on the basis of her father’s work, adaptations (also called “defense mechanisms”) are unconscious thoughts and behaviors that you could say either shape or distort—depending on whether you approve or disapprove—a person’s reality.

Vaillant explains defenses as the mental equivalent of a basic biological process. When we cut ourselves, for example, our blood clots—a swift and involuntary response that maintains homeostasis. Similarly, when we encounter a challenge large or small—a mother’s death or a broken shoelace—our defenses float us through the emotional swamp. And just as clotting can save us from bleeding to death—or plug a coronary artery and lead to a heart attack—defenses can spell our redemption or ruin. Vaillant’s taxonomy ranks defenses from worst to best, in four categories.

At the bottom of the pile are the unhealthiest, or “psychotic,” adaptations—like paranoia, hallucination, or megalomania—which, while they can serve to make reality tolerable for the person employing them, seem crazy to anyone else. One level up are the “immature” adaptations, which include acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy. These aren’t as isolating as psychotic adaptations, but they impede intimacy. “Neurotic” defenses are common in “normal” people. These include intellectualization (mutating the primal stuff of life into objects of formal thought); dissociation (intense, often brief, removal from one’s feelings); and repression, which, Vaillant says, can involve “seemingly inexplicable naïveté, memory lapse, or failure to acknowledge input from a selected sense organ.” The healthiest, or “mature,” adaptations include altruism, humor, anticipation (looking ahead and planning for future discomfort), suppression (a conscious decision to postpone attention to an impulse or conflict, to be addressed in good time), and sublimation (finding outlets for feelings, like putting aggression into sport, or lust into courtship).

In contrast to Anna Freud, who located the origins of defenses in the sexual conflicts of a child, Vaillant sees adaptations as arising organically from the pain of experience and playing out through the whole lifespan. Take his comparison of two Grant Study men, whom he named “David Goodhart” and “Carlton Tarrytown” in his first book on the study, Adaptation to Life, published in 1977. Both men grew up fearful and lonely. Goodhart was raised in a blue-collar family, had a bigoted, alcoholic father, and a mother he described as “very nervous, irritable, anxious, and a worrier.” Tarrytown was richer, and was raised in a wealthy suburb, but he also had an alcoholic father, and his mother was so depressed that he feared she would commit suicide. Goodhart went on to become a national leader on civil-rights issues—a master, Vaillant argued, of the “mature” defenses of sublimation and altruism. By his late 40s, staff researchers using independent ratings put Goodhart in the top fifth of the Grant Study in psychological adjustment. Tarrytown, meanwhile, was in the bottom fifth. A doctor who left a regular practice to work for the state, a three-time divorcé who anesthetized his pain with alcohol and sedatives, Tarrytown was, Vaillant said, a user of dissociation and projection—“neurotic” and “immature” defenses, respectively. After a relapse into drug abuse, Tarrytown killed himself at 53. Goodhart lived to 70. Though Vaillant says that the “dashing major” of midlife became a stolid and portly brigadier general, Goodhart’s obituaries still celebrated a hero of civil rights.

Most psychology preoccupies itself with mapping the heavens of health in sharp contrast to the underworld of illness. “Social anxiety disorder” is distinguished from shyness. Depression is defined as errors in cognition. Vaillant’s work, in contrast, creates a refreshing conversation about health and illness as weather patterns in a common space. “Much of what is labeled mental illness,” Vaillant writes, “simply reflects our ‘unwise’ deployment of defense mechanisms. If we use defenses well, we are deemed mentally healthy, conscientious, funny, creative, and altruistic. If we use them badly, the psychiatrist diagnoses us ill, our neighbors label us unpleasant, and society brands us immoral.”

This perspective is shaped by a long-term view. Whereas clinicians focus on treating a problem at any given time, Vaillant is more like a biographer, looking to make sense of a whole life—or, to take an even broader view, like an anthropologist or naturalist looking to capture an era. The good news, he argues, is that diseases—and people, too—have a “natural history.” After all, many of the “psychotic” adaptations are common in toddlers, and the “immature” adaptations are essential in later childhood, and they often fade with maturity. As adolescents, the Grant Study men were twice as likely to use immature defenses as mature ones, but in middle life they were four times as likely to use mature defenses—and the progress continued into old age. When they were between 50 and 75, Vaillant found, altruism and humor grew more prevalent, while all the immature defenses grew more rare.

This means that a glimpse of any one moment in a life can be deeply misleading. A man at 20 who appears the model of altruism may turn out to be a kind of emotional prodigy—or he may be ducking the kind of engagement with reality that his peers are both moving toward and defending against. And, on the other extreme, a man at 20 who appears impossibly wounded may turn out to be gestating toward maturity.

Such was the case, Vaillant argues, with “Dr. Godfrey Minot Camille,” a poetic and troubled young man who spent so much time at the Harvard infirmary complaining of vague symptoms that a college physician declared, “This boy is becoming a regular psychoneurotic.” He’d grown up in a frigid environment—he ate his meals alone until age 6—and spoke of his desolation with heartbreaking clarity. A member of the study staff advised him: “When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hold on.” He replied: “But the knot was tied so long ago, and I have been hanging on tight for such a long time.” After graduating from medical school, he attempted suicide.

With the help of psychotherapy and with the passage of time, his hypochondria eased and he began to show “displacement,” the strategy of shifting preoccupations from a painful source to more neutral ground. When his sister died, he sent her autopsy report to the Grant Study office, with a cool note saying that he expected it would be “an item of news.” He reported another family death this way: “I received an inheritance from my mother.”

For Camille, such detached neutrality seemed to herald progress. At 35, he spent 14 months in a hospital for an infection and had what he described as a spiritual awakening. “Someone with a capital ‘S’ cared about me,” he wrote. Afterward, he bloomed as a psychiatrist, channeling his own needs into service. He said he liked the “distant closeness” of psychotherapy—and liked getting paid for it. As a child, he had fantasized about being a minister or physician. “Finally, at age forty, wish became behavior,” Vaillant wrote.

In his 2002 book, Aging Well, Vaillant returned to this man’s story, this time calling him “Ted Merton” to emphasize his spiritual development. (The men in Vaillant’s books always have florid pseudonyms—Horace Lamb, Frederick Lion, Bill Loman, etc.) In several vignettes in the book, Vaillant presents Merton as an exemplar of how mature adaptations are a real-life alchemy, a way of turning the dross of emotional crises, pain, and deprivation into the gold of human connection, accomplishment, and creativity. “Such mechanisms are analogous to the involuntary grace by which an oyster, coping with an irritating grain of sand, creates a pearl,” he writes. “Humans, too, when confronted with irritants, engage in unconscious but often creative behavior.”

But “creative” doesn’t equate to ease. At ages 55 and 60, Merton had severe depressions. In the first instance he was hospitalized. The second instance coincided with his second divorce, and “he lost not only his wife, his savings, and his job, but even his network of professional colleagues.” Going forth into the breach of life can deepen meaning, but also deepen wounds.

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Joshua Wolf Shenk is the author of Powers of Two: Seeking the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairsforthcoming from Eamon Dolan Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 

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