What Makes Us Happy? What Are the Keys to Living a Good Life? (I’ll tell you!)

October 7, 2009          Comments (3)


Some might argue, the ultimate question, we’re all trying to figure out is what will make us happy? After all, everything we do is in the pursuit of happiness, right?

You could even argue that someone who acts altruistically is making them self happy too. But even so, what if there was a formula for living a good life. Would you follow it?

Well, George Vaillant has been trying to figure out this very answer as the longtime director of one of the most extensive projects in history. Known as the Grant Study researchers tracked the lives of 268 men who entered Harvard College in the late 1930s through war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and old age for 72 years!

And for the first time he’s granted access to what he thinks are the “keys to Fort Knox”. Most undertakings like the Grant Study falter because the funders expect results too quickly. W.T. Grant was no exception. After holding on for about a decade he gave in too.

Lucky for us, as a young man, George Vaillant fell in love with the longitudinal method of research, which tracks relatively small samples over long periods of time – so when he came across the Grant Study he wanted in. “To be able to study lives in such depth, over so many decades,” he said, “it was like looking through the Mount Palomar telescope,” then the most powerful in the world.

The findings of the project have made their way into a 17 page fascinating article in the June issue of The Atlantic which has been getting a lot of much deserved attention. The article offers profound insight into the human condition which I’ve become fascinated by.

I’ll share what I found to be the most interesting nuggets:

Vaillant’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 “defense mechanisms”.

We have unconscious thoughts and behaviors that can either shape or distort our reality – depending on whether we approve or disapprove of it.

By age 50, almost a third of the men in the study had at one time or another met Vaillant’s criteria for mental illness. Underneath the tweed jackets of these Harvard elites beat troubled hearts.

What is mental illness anyway? Vaillant believes much of what is described as mental illness is the use of unwise deployment of defense mechanisms. If we use defenses well, we are deemed mentally healthy, conscientious, funny, creative and altruistic. Yet, if we use them inappropriately we’re deemed misfits by society and mentally ill.

Essentially, everything we do in life is trying to adapt to what happens and that’s what determines our ability to live a good life.

Defenses are a basic biological process.  They can either save or ruin us. When we cut ourselves, for example, our blood clots – which is an involuntary response that maintains our homeostasis. Similarly, when we encounter a challenge large or small such as a parent’s death or a broken shoelace – our defenses float us through the emotional swamp.

4 Categories of defenses, starting with the most unhealthy:

“Psychotic adaptations” – like paranoia, hallucination or megalomania can make reality tolerable for the person – but seem crazy to everyone else.

“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 can involve naiveté, and memory lapse.

The healthiest are “mature adaptations” – which include altruism, humor, anticipation, suppression (a conscious decision to postpone attention to an impulse or conflict, to be addressed at a later time) and sublimation (finding outlets for feelings, like putting aggression into sport, or lust in courtship).

Many of the “psychotic” adaptations are common in toddlers and the “immature” adaptations are essential in later childhood, and they often fade with maturity (hopefully).

Humans when confronted with irritants engage in unconscious but often creative behavior although sometimes the creative behavior can be destructive.

7 major factors that predict healthy aging, both physically and psychologically:

Employing mature adaptations was one. The others were education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, exercise and a healthy weight. Of the 106 Harvard men who had 5 or 6 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”.

Of the men who had three or fewer of the health factors at age 50, none ended up “happy-well” at 80.


Regular exercise in college predicted late-life mental health better than it did physical health. And depression turned out to be a major drain on physical health. Of the men who were diagnosed with depression by age 50, more than 70 percent had died or were chronically ill by 63.


The power of relationships, it’s not intellectual brilliance or social class that leads to successful aging. Warm connections are necessary – and if they aren’t 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 another other variable.

Good sibling relationships seem to be especially powerful. 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger.

When Valliant was asked what he had learned from the study, he said, “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

How industrious you are as a child might predict adult mental health better than any other factor, including family cohesion and warm maternal relationships. For example, having part time jobs, taking on chores, or joining school clubs or sports teams all make a huge difference.

What we do affects how we feel just as much as how we feel affects what we do.

Try happiness. You’ll like it a lot more than misery but why do people tell physiologists they’d cross the street to avoid someone who had given them a compliment the previous day? It’s very hard for most us to tolerate being loved.

Positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is they’re future oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs – protecting us from attack.

Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections but in the short term actually put us at risk because negative emotions are insulating and positive emotions expose us to rejection and heartbreak.


For 30 years, Denmark has topped international happiness surveys. Why is that? Ask an American how it’s going and you’ll usually hear “Really good.” Ask a Dane, and you will hear, “It could be worse” (in their own language, of course). Danes have consistently and realistically low expectations for the year to come. Year after year they are pleasantly surprised to find that not everything is getting worse.

Happiness scientists have come up with all kinds of straightforward and actionable findings like money does little to make us happier once our basic needs are met and that marriage and faith lead to happiness.

But we do have “set points” for happiness. While 50 percent is a predisposition, circumstances account for 10 percent and 40 percent is in our control.

Why do countries with the highest self-reports of subjective well-being also yield the most suicides?

How is it that children are often found to be a source of “negative affect” (sadness, anger) yet people identify their children as their greatest source of pleasure?

Well, the very way we deal with reality is by distorting it – and we do this unconsciously. We’re not a good source of information about our own lives because we distort it. “With the passage of years old wars become more adventurous and less dangerous.”

Distortions clearly serve as a protective function.  “Maturation makes liars of us all.” We constantly fool ourselves.

Seeing a defense is easier than changing reality. Only with patience and tenderness might a person surrender his barbed armor for a softer shield.

So, can the good life be accounted for with a set of rules?

Perhaps in this, lies the key to a good life – not rules to follow, nor problems to avoid, but an engaged humility, and an earnest acceptance of life’s pains and promises.

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  1. Adam,

    Brilliant post as usual. This is fantastic. You have an amazing ability to synthesize information so that we can all understand it.

    Thanks for your generous post. This is really interesting!

    Comment by Nicole S — October 7, 2009 @ 10:24 am

  2. Great article, Adam. Moving on to read the full Atlantic article now! Thanks.

    Comment by Alex — October 7, 2009 @ 1:20 pm

  3. […] repeatedly that the link between amount of salary and happiness is not that strong. In fact, it’s rather weak. Yet, we keep pushing for more money and higher salaries. Much of that can be blamed on sheer […]

    Pingback by Guru Gilbert » Relativity and How it Can Make You Unhappy — May 12, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

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