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What Makes Us Happy?: Some Successes and Some Darkness

May 12, 2009

A brief summary of the results of the study shows what might be characterized as a surprising result: a significant number of these healthy and well-to-do men suffered from mental illness.

But as Vaillant points out, longitudinal studies, like wines, improve with age. And as the Grant Study men entered middle age—they spent their 40s in the 1960s—many achieved dramatic success. Four members of the sample ran for the U.S. Senate. One served in a presidential Cabinet, and one was president. There was a best-selling novelist (not, Vaillant has revealed, Norman Mailer, Harvard class of ’43). But hidden amid the shimmering successes were darker hues. As early as 1948, 20 members of the group displayed severe psychiatric difficulties. By age 50, almost a third of the men had at one time or another met Vaillant’s criteria for mental illness. Underneath the tweed jackets of these Harvard elites beat troubled hearts. Arlie Bock didn’t get it. “They were normal when I picked them,” he told Vaillant in the 1960s. “It must have been the psychiatrists who screwed them up.”

The quote from the study assistant is interesting in that it presupposes at least two things; (1) that a pre-selected group of healthy young adults will not experience a significant number of mental health issues later in life and (2) that exposure to psychiatry will cause the emergence of mental health issues. Where the latter presupposition is simply a misunderstanding of psychiatry, the former seems to be a misunderstanding of the prevalence of mental health issues in the our society. Maybe more of us have the potential to suffer from challenges to our mental health than was understood at the time of the commencement of the study.

And while it may be true that there is a more general risk of psychiatric difficulties it is also true that the majority of people, at least according to this study, will enjoy meaningful successes and a realistic chance at happiness. Especially if they display certain types of behaviors and characteristics as will be discussed next.

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