Saturday, May 16, 2009

Happiness = Love: The Conclusion of a Half-Century Long Harvard Study

My friend, Gerry Wood, works at Salisbury University on Maryland’s beautiful Eastern Shore. He is a voracious and discerning reader, and often alerts me to books and articles I should not miss. I am grateful that earlier this week, Gerry made me aware of a fascinating article in the current edition of Atlantic Monthly: “What Makes Us Happy?” by Joshua Wolf Shenk.

Atlantic Monthly article

Here is the magazine’s abstract of the gist of the article:

"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."

Shenk’s article brilliantly and extensively takes the reader through an overview of the evolution of this remarkable longitudinal study. The subjects’ anonymity has been preserved, except in rare cases. Ben Bradlee, of Washington Post fame and of Boston Brahmin origins, revealed that he was one of the subjects. John F. Kennedy was one of the only other subjects of the study whose identity has been revealed.

In 1967, Dr. George Vaillant, a Harvard trained psychiatrist, took over the leadership of the study, know as “The Grant Study” for the original funders of the project, and it has become the core of his life’s work. In a video interview that is linked to the magazine article, he talks about the impact that the men in this study have had upon him and his understanding of happiness. He concludes his remarks with a clear and unequivocal proclamation: “Happiness is love! Full stop.”

It is no accident that happiness and love appear to be linked wherever I turn these days in my reading and in my conversations. I remarked in reviewing two military books about the unlikely conclusion that being warriors together is all about love.

In describing why he chose to write his bestselling book, “Joker One,” Donovan Campbell offered the following rationale:

“So, that’s me: an ordinary young man who once made the choice to serve. I wish I could present someone greater to the reader, someone whose exploits and whose fame could automatically make people sit up and pay attention to the story of my men, but I can’t, because I’m not that someone. However, to this day I love my Marines with all that I’m capable of, and in spite of my shortcomings I want to do my utmost to help tell their tale. Though I can’t offer myself to the reader, I can offer my men, and I can tell a true story with love and heartfelt emotion from the inside. And I hope and I pray that whoever reads this story will know my men as do I, and that knowing them, they too might come to love them.” (Page 10)

In a similar vein, these words by Bill Murphy, Jr., author of the acclaimed “In a Time of War,” an account of West Point’s Golden Class the Class fo 2002:

“This, for Todd [Bryant], was the essence of West Point. ‘Duty, honor, country’ was the academy’s motto, and everyone talked constantly about honor and commitment, loyalty and patriotism. All that was true and good, but stripped of its pomp and circumstance, the place was really about love. Love of your country, love of your classmates and friends, and love of the future officers you’d someday serve with. Most of all, West Point was about learning to love the soldiers you would someday lead, the privates and sergeants, knuckleheads and heroes alike, who might, just once, in a life-justifying moment, look to you for leadership in some great battle on a distant shore.” (Pages 11-12)

I commend to you this remarkable article in Atlantic monthly, as well as the two books I have just cited.

I cannot escape the conclusion – from my reading, from my reflections, from my relationships and from my remarkably rich multiple decades of living – that happiness is never found when it is itself the object of the pursuit. It is found only as a byproduct of service and sacrifice and love.

Serve and love someone today - and be happy!


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