Joshua Wolf Shenk’s June article asked, “What makes us happy?” Here’s how readers suggested finding happiness:
1. Avoid ostentation.
2. Believe in God.
4. Contribute to society.
5. Join a 12-step program.
6. Get an education.
7. Read Kant.
8. Keep a journal.
9. Maintain reasonable expectations.
10. Watch Oprah
Joshua Wolf Shenk’s article, “What Makes Us Happy?” (June Atlantic), piqued my interest until I discovered that the us in the title refers only to men (and “elite” men at that). The study, while compelling, reflects a well-documented research bias of excluding women that was common until a few decades ago. It is reassuring to know that had this study launched today, it would have included women. What is troubling, though, is Shenk’s outdated portrayal of male experiences as universal experiences.
Los Angeles, Calif.
I first heard of George Vaillant when I was a college student in the early 1980s. When I later attended Simmons College School of Social Work, his Adaptation to Life was assigned reading. I am now a social-work educator, and I teach theories of human behavior, including Vaillant’s work, which is important in more ways than people may realize. Although Erik Erikson is rightfully credited with the first widely recognized theory of lifespan development, focusing on the psychological tasks of different phases of life, Vaillant and then Daniel Levinson expanded this view, noting that substantive growth and adaptation occur throughout the life cycle. This knowledge is taken for granted now, but it was radical at the time, when the dominant theoretical views focused on the primacy of childhood in development; childhood was thought to determine, to a large extent, life outcomes down the road. The Grant Study is limited by its skewed sample of privileged Harvard men, but from it we learn that childhood experience, although indisputably significant, is not as deterministically predictive of adult-life outcomes as many have tended to believe.
This has particular meaning in social work, a profession characterized by great optimism about the human capacity for positive change throughout the life cycle. Social workers are critical of theories that see people’s early negative experiences as setting them on a life trajectory of hardship, poor functioning, and pain. Through whatever theoretical lens we use to understand human beings, we focus on areas of resilience and strength, believing that people are inherently capable of moving forward and growing despite forces working against them.
Jeanette Andonian, M.S.W., Ph.D., L.C.S.W.
University of Southern Maine
School of Social Work
I found Joshua Wolf Shenk’s handling of this subject and the people involved (both the studied and the studiers) sensitive and insightful. In the early ’80s I worked in Cahill 3, an outpatient and inpatient clinic for alcoholism on the third floor of the Cahill Building at Cambridge City Hospital. Dr. Vaillant was at Harvard then and, as Cambridge City was a teaching hospital, he worked the ward sometimes. Dr. Vaillant was a folk hero of sorts to those of us working in the field of alcoholism.
I think the story was made more tender by the way Dr. Vaillant’s life was shared at the end of the article. In fact, it made the article more powerful to me to know I share his struggle with life relationships, even though I have tools, knowledge, and therapy. It is one thing to know something about yourself and quite another thing to change.
Joshua Wolf Shenk replies:
No question, I should have directly discussed the impact of the peculiar sample on the Grant Study’s empirical findings. I wonder, though, how more diversity would affect the more subtle points: the fine weave of joy and woe in our lives, for example, or the opportunity for human beings to change and grow across the life cycle. In both its tragic and hopeful messages, I think that the study does suggest universal themes.
Megan McArdle’s “Sink and Swim” (June Atlantic) makes an excellent case for a permissive bankruptcy regime, particularly for businesses. One would presume that entrepreneurs and those who extend them credit understand the risks and take them on willingly. Those facing bankruptcy caused by forces beyond their control—job loss, severe illness—likewise deserve some assistance.