Seventy years of studying happiness

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The Atlantic has a feature story, “What makes us happy?”, about the Harvard Study of Adult Development – a 72-year-old study of originally-normal Harvard undergraduates.

But as Vaillant points out, longitudinal studies, like wines, improve with age. And as the Grant Study men entered middle agethey spent their 40s in the 1960smany achieved dramatic success. Four members of the sample ran for the U.S. Senate. One served in a presidential Cabinet, and one was president. There was a best-selling novelist (not, Vaillant has revealed, Norman Mailer, Harvard class of 43). But hidden amid the shimmering successes were darker hues. As early as 1948, 20 members of the group displayed severe psychiatric difficulties. By age 50, almost a third of the men had at one time or another met Vaillants criteria for mental illness. Underneath the tweed jackets of these Harvard elites beat troubled hearts. Arlie Bock didnt get it. They were normal when I picked them, he told Vaillant in the 1960s. It must have been the psychiatrists who screwed them up.

It’s an odd story – a longitudinal survey based on Freudian principles. JFK was one of the study’s subjects. And probably the most enduring lesson, “Maturation makes liars of us all.”