How to find happiness and the good life is an ongoing search for humanity. Ninety years ago, Bertrand Russell wrote, “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” After last year’s presidential campaign, it’s a message that need to be considered.
Ten years after Russell delivered this philosophy, Harvard Medical School researchers started to find answers to the question of the good life through science in the Grant Study—and longest-running study in this realm. The Study of Adult Development began in 1938 as a contrast to medicine’s disease model as it followed 268 healthy sophomores between 1939 and 1944. Medical science knew nothing about DNA and little about genetics at that time. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders would not be written for another two decades. The good life was considered a purview of philosophy and not medicine.
Although the subject began by using entitled white men for the subjects, its findings did provide some insight into satisfaction—longevity, self-actualization, intersection of nature and nurture, etc. To explain these, Harvard psychologist and Grant Study director Robert Waldinger gave an 18-minute TED talk about the revelations of the 75 years of data: “What makes a good life? Lessons learned from the longest study on happiness.”
Pete Jones provided his responses on how the talk ties into his own life. His first reaction is that “everything that I wanted was tied back to some form of happiness. I want to be healthier and more consistent with workouts this makes me happy. I want to plan an adventure with some degree of uncertainty because it makes me happy.”
Waldinger reported that 80 percent of millenials believe that getting rich is important for staying happy and healthy; 50 percent said that becoming famous would lead to these ends. U.S. work ethics urge people to work harder and achieve more, indicating that these efforts will result in a good life. The Harvard study tracking 724 men since 1938—60 or whom are still alive and participating—differs from this perception.
The subjects included the original 268 male sophomores who graduated during World War II, many of them serving in the war, and 456 inner-city young men from poor Boston neighborhoods in the 1930s. Study administrators interviewed subjects in their own homes, talked to their children, scanned their brains, and inspected their medical records and blood.
These are the discoveries:
Social connections are important. People more connected to family, friends and community are happier and healthier. They live longer compared to others whose health declined earlier. Lonely people drink more alcohol, exercise and sleep less, and have more daytime fatigue.
The quality—not the quantity—of relationships matters in health and happiness. High-conflict intimate relationships lacking affection are unhealthy, perhaps worse than separating. Happy relationships, not cholesterol levels, are the important predictor of satisfaction, even if people experience more physical pain. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar determined that the average person can have about 150 people in their social group. Yet only 15 of these people are friends for confiding in, and only five are a close support group of best friends and family.
Secure relationships equal protection both physically and mentally. When people are satisfied with their relationships, they have sharper memories.
The 58 men who scored highest on “warm relationships” earned an average of $141,000 a year in their peak salaries between the ages between 55 and 60 more than the 31 men who scored the lowest. Men with poor childhood relationships with their mothers made less money and were more likely to develop dementia when they grew old. Good relationships with fathers correlated with less adult anxiety, greater enjoyment of vacations, and increased “life satisfaction” when they were 75 years old. George E. Vallant, the director of the study in the last part of the 20th century, wrote, “Happiness is love” in his book Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study.
Bertrand Russell’s ideas of achieving happiness add to the concept of good relationships. Zest, “an appetite for possible things,” is vital. It may not directly lead to happiness because happiness requires effort. Russell wrote that this is the reason that he called his book, “the conquest of happiness.” The enemy of zest is boredom which leads people to the desire for excitement. An excitement incompatible with zest, however, is anxiety. Russell recommends that “when you have looked for some time steadily at the worst possibility and have said to yourself with real conviction, ‘Well, after all, that would not matter so very much’, you will find that your worry diminishes to a quite extraordinary extent.”
Russell also has a solution for the difficulty of making choices.
“I have found, for example, that if I have to write upon some rather difficult topic the best plan is to think about it with very great intensity—the greatest intensity of which I am capable—for a few hours or days, and at the end of that time to give orders, so to speak, that the work is to proceed underground. After some months I return consciously to the topic and find that the work has been done.”
The greatest obstacle to happiness, to Russell, is “the disease of self-absorption.” The less preoccupied people are with themselves, the happier they are. Perhaps that’s the answer to a good relationship. He wrote that people serve as objects of comparison to the self-absorbed person:
“What people fear [. . .] is not that they will fail to get their breakfast next morning, but that they will fail to outshine their neighbors.”
Russell’s suggestion to overcome self-absorption is to “teach yourself that life would still be worth living even if you were not, as of course you are, immeasurably superior to all your friends in virtue and intelligence.” His recommendation: “You can get away from envy by enjoying the pleasures that come your way, by doing the work that you have to do, and by avoiding comparisons with those whom you imagine, perhaps quite falsely, to be more fortunate than yourself.”
Another piece of advice is for people to worry less about others think of them: “Chances are you overestimate the love of your friends and the disdain of your foes.” He does recommend respect for public opinion in order “to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways.”To Russell, a conformist society is boring which circles back to the need for zest.
Perhaps a long happy life comes from deciding what you can do for people, not to people.