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What Makes Us Happy?: How to Study A Life and Measure Happiness

May 12, 2009

The longitudinal study, described below, has the capacity to take the long view of a group of study subjects, putting short-term effects into context and emphasizing the impacts of decisions, habits and conditions over the long term of the the subjects life.

For 42 years, the psychiatrist George Vaillant has been the chief curator of these lives, the chief investigator of their experiences, and the chief analyst of their lessons. His own life has been so woven into the study—and the study has become such a creature of his mind—that neither can be understood without the other. As Vaillant nears retirement (he’s now 74), and the study survivors approach death—the roughly half still living are in their late 80s—it’s a good time to examine both, and to do so, I was granted unprecedented access to case files ordinarily restricted to researchers.

As a young man, Vaillant fell in love with the longitudinal method of research, which tracks relatively small samples over long periods of time (as in Michael Apted’s Seven Up! documentaries). In 1961, as a psychiatric resident at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, Vaillant found himself intrigued by two patients with manic depression who had 25 years earlier been diagnosed as incurable schizophrenics. Vaillant asked around for other cases of remitted schizophrenia and pulled their charts. “These records hadn’t been assembled to do research,” Vaillant told me recently, “but it was contemporary, real-time information, with none of the errors you get from memory or the distortions you get when you narrate history from the vantage of the present.” In 1967, after similar work following up on heroin addicts, he discovered the Harvard Study, and his jaw dropped. “To be able to study lives in such depth, over so many decades,” he said, “it was like looking through the Mount Palomar telescope,” then the most powerful in the world. Soon after he began to work with the material, he found himself talking about the project to his psychoanalyst. Showing him the key that opened the study cabinets, Vaillant said, “I have the key to Fort Knox.”

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Jill permalink
    May 12, 2009 6:53 pm

    Thanks Wales for posting this long-form commentary on this amazing study.

    One question: Andrew Sullivan (and you) seem surprised by the number of men who were diagnosed with a major form of psychiatric illness in their adult life. Is this surprising because they were all students from Harvard ? Or because some of them were successful and suffered from a psychiatric illness ? (Not sure why exactly this is surprising.)

    A related question: If 20 out of 268 (if I remember the total number of men followed correctly), that would be 7.4% of the sample. The question is, what does this 7.4% mean ? Would 7.4% of similarly-aged men who did not go to college be diagnosed with a mental illness in their adult lives? Or, would 7.4% of women with similar background characteristics (age and social class, for example) be diagnosed ?

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