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What Makes Us Happy?: In the End, “Too Human for Science”?

May 12, 2009

For all the identifiable and quantifiable characteristics that reflect a self-described happy life, the definition of happiness is not universal, nor is the varied experience of life susceptible to rigid categorization. The good life, whatever that is, is more than an adherence to a set of inflexible rules:

Can the good life be accounted for with a set of rules? Can we even say who has a “good life” in any broad way? At times, Vaillant wears his lab coat and lays out his findings matter-of-factly. (“As a means of uncovering truth,” he wrote in Adaptation to Life, “the experimental method is superior to intuition.”) More often, he speaks from a literary and philosophical perspective. (In the same chapter, he wrote of the men, “Their lives were too human for science, too beautiful for numbers, too sad for diagnosis and too immortal for bound journals.) In one of my early conversations with him, he described the study files as hundreds of Brothers Karamazovs. Later, after taking a stab at answering several Big Questions I had asked him—Do people change? What does the study teach us about the good life?—he said to me, “Why don’t you tell me when you have time to come up to Boston and read one of these Russian novels?”

Indeed, the lives themselves—dramatic, pathetic, inspiring, exhausting—resonate on a frequency that no data set could tune to. The physical material—wispy sheets from carbon copies; ink from fountain pens—has a texture. You can hear the men’s voices, not only in their answers, but in their silences, as they stride through time both personal (masturbation reports give way to reports on children; career plans give way to retirement plans) and historical (did they vote for Dewey or Truman?; “What do you think about today’s student protesters, drug users, hippies, etc.?”). Secrets come out. One man did not acknowledge to himself until he reached his late 70s that he was gay. With this level of intimacy and depth, the lives do become worthy of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky.

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