Happiness: Is Managing Our Misery the Key?

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Last Year, on my blog, Knowledge is Necessity, I ran a poll asking readers how their last seven days went. What a miserable bunch we turned out to be. Only three in a hundred replied, "couldn't have gone better." Added to those who said the last seven days went "pretty well," only one in five - 20 percent - had a positive week.

    By contrast, more than twice as many - nearly half - had a negative week, roughly split among those who disclosed the last seven days "totally sucked" and those who reported "the week posed a serious challenge."

    About one in three said the week had "its ups and downs. 

    As I commented in my piece:

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    Obviously, our population has extreme difficulties with the concept of happy. Meanwhile, we have miserable nailed. I suspect the general population is similarly - though not as excessively - predisposed.

    Maybe we’re simply not meant to be happy, and the sooner we acknowledge this the happier we’ll be. Maybe our perception of happiness is totally wrong, and we become miserable chasing after the wrong things. Maybe life is all about successfully negotiating its special challenges, instead. Maybe the best we can hope for is quiet acceptance.

    One of my readers, Louise, offered an alternative explanation. "Rarely," she said, "do we experience events that we think are our peak experiences in life. By contrast:

    "Totally sucked" events are as common as rain. People die tragically. People die from totally normal reasons like old age. Spouses leave you for someone else. Your company is bought out and half the workforce fired. Stocks plummet (goodbye retirement!) Children total your car.

    See? Common as rain.

    She also noted that those of us with mood disorders are inclined to interpret normal disappointments as the end of the world.

    I think Louise is onto something here. If we invest our happiness in seldom-occurring peak experiences we are setting ourselves up for endless rounds of disappointment. The trick to managing life, then, is how well we handle those "common as rain" let-downs and total bummers.

    In a follow-up piece, Happiness - Why Are We So Bad At It?, I reported on an epic longitudinal study that followed the lives of a cohort of Harvard men (including JFK) beginning in 1937. The original funding came from department store magnate WT Grant, and hence became known as the “Grant Study.” My source was a feature article in Atlantic Monthly by Joshua Shenk (author of Lincoln’s Melancholy), entitled, What Makes Us Happy?

    Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant took over the Grant Study in 1967 when it was on life support, and kept it going another 42 years. According to Shenk:

    [Valliant's] central question is not how much or how little trouble these men met, but rather precisely how—and to what effect—they responded to that trouble. His main interpretive lens has been the psychoanalytic metaphor of ‘adaptations,’ or unconscious responses to pain, conflict, or uncertainty.

    For instance, as Shenk describes it, when we cut ourselves, our blood clots, but a clot may also lead to a heart attack. Similarly when we encounter a life challenge - large or small - our defenses "float us through the emotional swamp," ones that can spell redemption or ruin.

  • An unhealthy response such as psychosis may at least make reality tolerable (but at what cost?), while "immature adaptations" include various form of acting out (such as passive-aggression). “Neurotic” defenses such as intellectualization and removal from one’s feelings are quite normal.

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    Healthy (mature) adaptations include altruism, humor, anticipation, and other behaviors.

    According to Mr Shenk:

    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.

    Thankfully, as the Harvard men grew older, they increasingly favored mature defenses over immature ones. As well as healthy adaptations, other reliable indicators for happy lives included education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, and healthy weight. As Shenk puts it:

    Of the 106 Harvard men who had five or six of these factors in their favor at age 50, half ended up at 80 as what Vaillant called "happy-well" and only 7.5 percent as "sad-sick."

    Those who had three or fewer protective factors were three times as likely to be dead at 80 as those with four or more factors.

    And this sobering finding: “Of the men who were diagnosed with depression by age 50, more than 70 percent had died or were chronically ill by 63.”

    Ironically, according to Vaillant, positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. Whereas negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to rejection and heartbreak. As I concluded in my piece:

    Perhaps it takes a brave individual to be happy. Perhaps happiness does not elude us so much as we elude it. Food for thought ...


    Much more on happiness in future shareposts. Please feel free to join the conversation. Comments below ...

Published On: July 10, 2010