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What Makes a Good Life: Revelatory Learnings from Harvard’s 75-Year Study of Human Happiness

“The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.”

What Makes a Good Life: Revelatory Learnings from Harvard’s 75-Year Study of Human Happiness

“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge,” Bertrand Russell wrote in his 1925 treatise on the nature of the good life and how we limit our happiness. For the whole of human history up to that point, such questions had been left entirely to his ilk — the philosophers — and perhaps to the occasional poet.

By the following decade, a team of visionary researchers at Harvard had enlisted the tools of science in wresting tangible, measurable, actionable answers to this perennial question of the good life. So began the Study of Adult Development at the Harvard Medical School, better known as the Grant Study — the longest-running study of human happiness. Beginning in 1938 as a counterpoint to the disease model of medicine, the ongoing research set out to illuminate the conditions that enhance wellbeing by following the lives of 268 healthy sophomores from the Harvard classes between 1939 and 1944. It was a project revolutionary in both ambition and impact, nothing like it done before or since.

For some necessary perspective on medicine in the 1930s: Having not yet uncovered the structure of DNA, we knew close to nothing about genetics; mental health was a fringe concern of the profession, with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders still two decades away; the microbiome was an inconceivable flight of fancy. Little progress had been made since Walt Whitman’s prescient case for the grossly underserved human factors in healthcare and the question of what makes for a good life was cautiously left to philosophy. It’s hard for the modern mind to grasp just how daring it was for physicians to attempt to address it.

But that’s precisely what the Harvard team did. There are, of course, glaring limitations to the study — ones that tell the lamentable story of our cultural history: the original subjects were privileged white men. Nonetheless, the findings furnish invaluable insight into the core dimensions of human happiness and life satisfaction: who lives to ninety and why, what predicts self-actualization and career success, how the interplay of nature and nurture shapes who we become.

In this illuminating TED talk, Harvard psychologist and Grant Study director Robert Waldinger — the latest of four generations of scientists working on the project — shares what this unprecedented study has revealed, with the unflinching solidity of 75 years of data, about the building blocks of happiness, longevity, and the meaningful life.

The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.

For a deeper dive into the significance and legacy of the Grant Study project, see the revelatory book Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study (public library) by Harvard psychologist George E. Vaillant — Waldinger’s predecessor, who spent thirty years as director of this revolutionary study — then revisit his Harvard peer Daniel Gilbert on how our present illusions hinder our future happiness and pioneering immunologist Esther Sternberg on how our relationships affect our immune system.

BP

Anne Gilchrist on Inner Wholeness, Our Greatest Obstacle to Happiness, and the Body as the Seedbed of a Flourishing Soul

“One of the hardest things to make a child understand is, that down underneath your feet, if you go far enough, you come to blue sky and stars again; that there really is no ‘down’ for the world, but only in every direction an ‘up.’”

Anne Gilchrist on Inner Wholeness, Our Greatest Obstacle to Happiness, and the Body as the Seedbed of a Flourishing Soul

“So few grains of happiness measured against all the dark and still the scales balance,” Jane Hirshfield wrote in her stunning poem “The Weighing.” In how we chip from the monolithic weight of the world those osmian grains of happiness lies the promise of an answer to the abiding question: How, in this blink of existence bookended by nothingness, do we attain completeness of being?

That is what Anne Gilchrist (February 25, 1828–November 29, 1885) — a woman Walt Whitman cherished as “a sort of human miracle,” whose “vision went on and on” and who “belonged to the times yet to come” — returns to again and again, each time quarrying new strata of insight, in the forgotten treasure The Letters of Anne Gilchrist and Walt Whitman (free ebook | public library). Radiating from the pages of her beautiful and heartbreaking love letters to Whitman is an uncommonly original and penetrating mind in dialogue perhaps even more richly with itself than with its half-attentive correspondent. (Whitman responded to a fraction of the letters; he could not, for the obvious reason, meet her romantic ardor — but he relished and responded to her exceptional mind.)

Anne Gilchrist

By the time Gilchrist encountered Whitman’s soul-salving poetry, which she helped popularize in England with her coruscating review, she had been widowed for more than a decade, raising her four children as a single mother and making a living by her pen in an era when very few women were published authors. On the second day of summer in 1869, in consonance with her contemporary and compatriot Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s insistence on happiness as a moral obligation, Gilchrist writes in a letter to William Michael Rossetti — Christina Rossetti’s brother and Whitman’s British publisher, who had boldly brought Leaves of Grass to England when it was scorned in America and who would eventually introduce Gilchrist and Whitman:

I used to think it was great to disregard happiness, to press on to a high goal, careless, disdainful of it. But now I see that there is nothing so great as to be capable of happiness; to pluck it out of “each moment and whatever happens”; to find that one can ride as gay and buoyant on the angry, menacing, tumultuous waves of life as on those that glide and glitter under a clear sky; that it is not defeat and wretchedness which come out of the storm of adversity, but strength and calmness.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Our greatest obstacle to happiness, Gilchrist intimates, are our illusions of finitude and fragmentation — a failure of imagination that becomes a self-imposed prison of smallness, from which we are liberated only when we learn to see the interconnected wholeness of the universe:

One of the hardest things to make a child understand is, that down underneath your feet, if you go far enough, you come to blue sky and stars again; that there really is no “down” for the world, but only in every direction an “up.” And that this is an all-embracing truth, including within its scope every created thing, and, with deepest significance, every part, faculty, attribute, healthful impulse, mind, and body of a man (each and all facing towards and related to the Infinite on every side), is what we grown children find it hardest to realize, too.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Fifteen years before William James devised his revolutionary theory of how our bodies affect our feelings and more than a century before our modern science shed light on how the mind and the body converge in the healing of trauma, Gilchrist makes a beautifully articulated, elegantly reasoned case for nondualistic wellbeing:

I feel deeply persuaded that a perfectly fearless, candid, ennobling treatment of the life of the body (so inextricably intertwined with, so potent in its influence on the life of the soul) will prove of inestimable value to all earnest and aspiring natures, impatient of the folly of the long-prevalent belief that it is because of the greatness of the spirit that it has learned to despise the body, and to ignore its influences; knowing well that it is, on the contrary, just because the spirit is not great enough, not healthy and vigorous enough, to transfuse itself into the life of the body, elevating that and making it holy by its own triumphant intensity; knowing, too, how the body avenges this by dragging the soul down to the level assigned itself. Whereas the spirit must lovingly embrace the body, as the roots of a tree embrace the ground, drawing thence rich nourishment, warmth, impulse. Or, rather, the body is itself the root of the soul — that whereby it grows and feeds. The great tide of healthful life that carries all before it must surge through the whole man, not beat to and fro in one corner of his brain.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Like Whitman, who both reverenced science and probed its limitations, Gilchrist bolstered her erudition and her philosophical ideas with an intense interest in astronomy, chemistry, and biology, keeping up with the latest discoveries of the time. Drawing on her respect for science, and echoing computing pioneer Alan Turing’s brokenhearted belief that “the body provides something for the spirit to look after and use,” she adds:

Science knows that matter is not, as we fancied, certain stolid atoms which the forces of nature vibrate through and push and pull about; but that the forces and the atoms are one mysterious, imperishable identity, neither conceivable without the other. She knows, as well as the poet, that destructibility is not one of nature’s words; that it is only the relationship of things — tangibility, visibility — that are transitory. She knows that body and soul are one, and proclaims it undauntedly, regardless, and rightly regardless, of inferences.

Complement with Gilchrist’s contemporary Mary Shelley on nature and the meaning of happiness and Whitman himself on what makes life worth living, then leap across epochs of scientific understanding to Harvard’s groundbreaking 75-year study of human happiness.

BP

Relationship Happiness and Your DNA: How One Gene Encodes Emotional Sensitivity

Inside the nuanced science of serotonin and the underappreciated upside of being a sensitive creature.

“An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her stunning meditation on relationships. A happy human relationship, it turns out, is contingent not upon the nature and delivery process of these truths, particularly the difficult truths, but upon the nature of the hearer — upon our emotional orientation and sensitivity, which appears to be encoded in our DNA via a particular gene that regulates serotonin in the brain. So indicates the fascinating research of U.C. Berkeley psychophysiologist and behavioral neuroscientist Robert Levenson.

Known as 5-HTTLPR (serotonin-transporter-linked polymorphic region) and located on chromosome 17 of your DNA, this gene comes in two varieties — one with a short allele and the other with a long allele. Decades of research have revealed a strong positive correlation between the short-allele type and a high precedence of depression, anxiety, and attention disorders, suggesting that people with the short allele respond more negatively to emotional friction within a relationship and seeding the assumption that having this gene is plainly problematic for one’s psychoemotional health. But Levenson’s lab uncovered a much more nuanced and surprisingly optimistic reality — rather than predisposing to more negative emotional responses, the short allele appears to predispose simply to more emotional responses, serving as a kind of psychoemotional magnifying glass that renders all emotions, the lows as well as the highs, more deeply and intensely felt. Levenson explains:

Complement with Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage, Virginia Woolf on what makes love last, and Rainer Maria Rilke on freedom, togetherness, and the key to a good relationship, then revisit these revelatory findings about relationships and happiness from Harvard’s landmark 75-year study of human flourishing.

HT Aeon

BP

A Placid Ecstasy: Walt Whitman’s Most Direct Reflection on Happiness

“What is happiness, anyhow? … so impalpable — a mere breath, an evanescent tinge…”

A Placid Ecstasy: Walt Whitman’s Most Direct Reflection on Happiness

“One can’t write directly about the soul,”, Virginia Woolf wrote. “Looked at, it vanishes.” So with happiness — as slippery as “the soul,” as certain to crumble upon deconstruction. Philosophers have contemplated its nature for millennia, psychologists have attempted to unearth its existential building blocks and delineate its stages. And yet at the heart of it remains a mystery — wildly various across lives and within any one life, a fickle visitation unbeckonable by external lures, as anyone who has sorrowed on a sunny-skied day knows. “There’s no accounting for happiness,” Jane Kenyon wrote in her sublime poem about the ultimate elusion, “or the way it turns up like a prodigal who comes back to the dust at your feet having squandered a fortune far away.”

One of the simplest, fullest definitions of happiness I’ve encountered comes from Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) in Specimen Days (public library) — the splendid collection of his prose fragments, letters, and diary entries on subjects like the wisdom of trees, the singular power of music, how art imbues even the bleakest moments with beauty, and what makes life worth living.

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

In an entry from October 20, 1876, fifty-seven-year-old Whitman composes his most direct meditation on the meaning of happiness. A century before Mary Oliver contemplated what it takes to inhabit a moment of happiness, he writes:

I don’t know what or how, but it seems to me mostly owing to these skies, (every now and then I think, while I have of course seen them every day of my life, I never really saw the skies before,) I have had this autumn some wondrously contented hours — may I not say perfectly happy ones? As I’ve read, Byron just before his death told a friend that he had known but three happy hours during his whole existence. Then there is the old German legend of the king’s bell, to the same point. While I was out there by the wood, that beautiful sunset through the trees, I thought of Byron’s and the bell story, and the notion started in me that I was having a happy hour. (Though perhaps my best moments I never jot down; when they come I cannot afford to break the charm by inditing memoranda. I just abandon myself to the mood, and let it float on, carrying me in its placid extasy.)

What is happiness, anyhow? Is this one of its hours, or the like of it? — so impalpable — a mere breath, an evanescent tinge? I am not sure — so let me give myself the benefit of the doubt.

Complement this particular fragment of the altogether spirit-quenching Specimen Days with Willa Cather’s delicious definition of happiness, Albert Camus on the antidote to its slipperiness, and Agnes Martin on our greatest obstacle to it, then revisit Whitman on how to live a vibrant and rewarding life.

BP

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