Thursday, May 14, 2009

What Makes Us Happy?

You mean besides Broadway musicals, watching The Office or long walks through Central Park in the Spring? Sure, those things make me happy in any given moment, but an article I read today by Joshua Wolf Shenk in The Atlantic has got me thinking a lot about what constitutes a happy and fulfilling life as a whole.

I'll admit that before reading this article I didn't know what a Longitudinal Study was. I might have acted like I understood the term if someone mentioned it in conversation, if only for fear of appearing ignorant. But it turns out I'm a big fan and I didn't even know it. One of my favorite documentaries - The 7UP series - is a popular culture example. Longitudinal Studies - I'll call them Longies for short - are scientific studies of a relatively small group of people over a very long period of time. This article is about a cohort (watch out now, scientific terms coming fast and furious) known as the Grant Group who were all Harvard Students in the early 1940s. It's a long but fascinating article that I may or may not have read entirely at work. Details at 11. But I recommend you read it if this topic interests you.

The scientist who saved this study from dying a slow death due to lack of funding in the 50s and making it his research baby ever since is George Vaillant, whose own complexities and search for happiness are a story within a story, both of which are touched on in this magazine article. The sentence that has stayed with me all day comes from a March 2008 newsletter about the study. It ran an interview with Valliant in which he was asked, "What have you learned from the Grant Study men?" His answer was succinct and beautiful ... at least to me.

Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” Well, that and the occasional Phillies World Series victory every quarter century. But who's counting?


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