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.”
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.”