What Makes Us Happy? My Interview With Joshua Wolf Shenk


I’ve talked about Joshua Wolf Shenk before because his book, “Lincoln’s Melancholy,” was deeply inspiring to me back in Fall of 2005.

I remember the exact moment in which I heard excerpts of it. I was sitting in my son’s preschool parking lot, crying, feeling so hopeless … so I called my mentor, Mike Leach, who was reading the book at the time.

“I think these paragraphs will help you,” he said, as he started to read some of the book to me over the phone. I was filled with an overwhelming sense of hope. I began to think that even if I never found a medication combination that worked, that I could go on to do good and meaningful work in my life … that my illness didn’t have to be the end of me.

So Joshua has always been a hope warrior to me.

Awhile back, he published the fascinating essay “What Makes Us Happy?” in “The Atlantic.”

It was riveting.

Joshua spent about a month in the file room of the Harvard Study of Adult Development hoping to learn the secret of happiness. The project is one of the longest-running and probably the most exhaustive longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history. Basically, for 72 years researchers at Harvard have been following 268 men who entered college in the late 1930s–following them through war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and old age.

A brilliant man named George Vaillant has directed the study for 40-plus years, compiling and processing all the information.

So what did Joshua learn? What makes for happiness??

Let me just pluck out a few of the most intriguing concepts presented in the article.

Everything We Do Is a Defense Mechanism

Joshua explained to me that according to George’s theory, which is drawn from Sigmund and Anna Freud, EVERYTHING we do is a defense mechanism, some “psychotic,” some “immature,” some “neurotic,” and some “mature.”

Joshua writes:

Most psychology preoccupies itself with mapping the heavens of health in sharp contrast to the underworld of illness. “Social anxiety disorder” is distinguished from shyness. Depression is defined as errors in cognition. Vaillant’s work, in contrast, creates a refreshing conversation about health and illness as weather patterns in a common space. “Much of what is labeled mental illness,” Vaillant writes, “simply reflects our ‘unwise’ deployment of defense mechanisms. If we use defenses well, we are deemed mentally healthy, conscientious, funny, creative, and altruistic. If we use them badly, the psychiatrist diagnoses us ill, our neighbors label us unpleasant, and society brands us immoral.”

The Seven Major Factors of Healthy Aging

George Valliant identified seven major factors that predict healthy aging, both physically and psychologically. Here they are: employing mature adaptations, education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight.

I asked Joshua if we could count on those seven things to promote our mental-health program, as well. Although they aren’t a “blueprint” for mental health, he said–because a blueprint doesn’t exist–he agreed that yes, those seven elements certainly contribute to good physical and mental health.

The Power of Relationships

When someone asked George Valliant what he learned from the study, he responded: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

Joshua writes:

Vaillant’s other main interest is the power of relationships. “It is social aptitude,” he writes, “not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.” Warm connections are necessary–and if not found in a mother or father, they can come from siblings, uncles, friends, mentors. The men’s relationships at age 47, he found, predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable, except defenses. Good sibling relationships seem especially powerful: 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger.

Joy Is Pain and Pain Is Joy

The wisdom and dept of Joshua’s article reminded me of the classic, “The Prophet,” especially Kahlil Gibran’s essay on pain:

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.

Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.

And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;

And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.

And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.

Joshua discusses the relationship between George Valliant and the positive psychology movement, especially to University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman.
He writes:

When Vaillant told me he was going to speak to Seligman’s class, he said his message would be from William Blake: “Joy and woe are woven fine.” Earlier in his career, he would use such occasions to demonstrate, with stories and data, the bright side of pain–how adaptations can allow us to turn dross into gold. Now he articulates the dark side of pleasure and connection–or, at least, the way that our most profound yearnings can arise from our most basic fears.

I realize that I have probably just left you with more questions than answers. Joshua’s article was clearly not a “5 Steps to Happiness” write-up.

That’s why I have read it several times, each time taking away something different, and even more profound.

To read Joshua’s article, click here.

To get to his website click here.

Originally published on Beyond Blue at Beliefnet.com

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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