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What Makes Us Happy?: An Introduction to the Study

May 12, 2009

Here’s the prologue to the story in The Atlantic:

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.

So the first question becomes: What is happiness and how can one predict which factors might lead to happiness in our lives, and which to unhappiness? There is also the question of whether or not happiness can be quantified or if it is even an objective condition which can be measured or identified. And what of the study subjects? Are the necessarily elite men who would have had the chance to enter Harvard in the 1930’s really a representative sample of human psychology? Wouldn’t they be statistically more likely to be well-educated, wealthier, in better health and with more access to resources and experiences that might tend to create happiness? The observations made by the study provide some expected, but also some counter-intuitive answers, to these questions.

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