What Makes Us Happy? asks Joshua Wolf Shenk in the June 2009 issue of The Atlantic. The article is a dual biography of two intertwined entities, a long-running study of 268 Harvard men and the study’s long-time principal investigator, George Vaillant. The study was started as a way to determine how people lived successful lives. Valliant’s main interpretation from decades of study is that how people respond or adapt to trouble correlates with their healthy aging.
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 naivete, 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).
Shenk then goes on to evaluate Vaillant on his own terms, with some interesting results.