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What Makes Us Happy?: Responding to Challenges

May 12, 2009

As it turns out, happiness is most often a function of how we respond to the inevitable troubles life puts in our path:

[Vaillant’s] central question is not how much or how little trouble these men met, but rather precisely how—and to what effect—they responded to that trouble. His main interpretive lens has been the psychoanalytic metaphor of “adaptations,” or unconscious responses to pain, conflict, or uncertainty. Formalized by Anna Freud on the basis of her father’s work, adaptations (also called “defense mechanisms”) are unconscious thoughts and behaviors that you could say either shape or distort—depending on whether you approve or disapprove—a person’s reality.

Vaillant explains defenses as the mental equivalent of a basic biological process. When we cut ourselves, for example, our blood clots—a swift and involuntary response that maintains homeostasis. Similarly, when we encounter a challenge large or small—a mother’s death or a broken shoelace—our defenses float us through the emotional swamp. And just as clotting can save us from bleeding to death—or plug a coronary artery and lead to a heart attack—defenses can spell our redemption or ruin. Vaillant’s taxonomy ranks defenses from worst to best, in four categories.

At the bottom of the pile are the unhealthiest, or “psychotic,” adaptations—like paranoia, hallucination, or megalomania—which, while they can serve to make reality tolerable for the person employing them, seem crazy to anyone else. One level up are the “immature” adaptations, which include acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy. These aren’t as isolating as psychotic adaptations, but they impede intimacy. “Neurotic” defenses are common in “normal” people. These include intellectualization (mutating the primal stuff of life into objects of formal thought); dissociation (intense, often brief, removal from one’s feelings); and repression, which, Vaillant says, can involve “seemingly inexplicable naïveté, memory lapse, or failure to acknowledge input from a selected sense organ.” The healthiest, or “mature,” adaptations include altruism, humor, anticipation (looking ahead and planning for future discomfort), suppression (a conscious decision to postpone attention to an impulse or conflict, to be addressed in good time), and sublimation (finding outlets for feelings, like putting aggression into sport, or lust into courtship).

Aside from the truly psychotic adaptations, the more productive adaptations and the less seem to share the characteristic of intention. Put another way, to one degree or another both the “good” and “bad” responses to difficulty involve some degree of choice on our part. I find that heartening in the sense that, while we will all be confronted with challenges and maybe even tragedy, our responses to those difficulties–and, hence, the likelihood of our weathering those tough times well–depends not so much on mere chance or circumstance but on our willingness or capacity for making a decision to confront challenges in a healthier manner. This conclusion is similar to a statement I once read from Elie Weisel, the well-known Holocaust survivor and writer who said something like (and I paraphrase here), “They can take everything away from you but your attitude.” While that at first sounded rather pithy to me, it holds a fierce optimism: no matter what is done to you, you are left with the mental choice of how to respond. (I would think, though, that real psychosis would be an exception to this.) You might feel anger or fear as an immediate response to an external event, but you nonetheless possess the capacity to transform that feeling into something defiant or resolute or, even, happy. No one and nothing, then, has the ability to actually force you to feel a particular way. I don’t think anyone suggests that this transformation is easy, but that it is possible should be the cause for optimism.

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