Thursday, June 18, 2009

Is There a Formula to Happiness?

NPR's Talk of the Nation recently had an interview with Joshua Shenk, who wrote "What Makes Us Happy?", an essay published in The Atlantic. Recently, Mr. Shenk got a chance to review the files of the Harvard Study of Adult Development hoping to find the secrets to a good life. The study involved researchers following, over the span of 72 years, the lives of 268 young men who attended the college in the late 1930s, and saw them through marriages, divorce, alcoholism, etc, all in hopes of finding the elusive secret or perfect combination of factors which could determine a long, happy and healthy life. Supposedly study participants have mostly remained anonymous except for a few who identified themselves, including Ben Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post.

The psychiatrist in charge of the files and the study over the last 42 years is George Vaillant. The doctor determined there are 7 factors that predict healthy aging, both physically and psychologically, including education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise and healthy weight. Personally, I find that most of those identified factors didn't really require 72 years of study to determine, they seem pretty common sense. Nonetheless, one of the key items to a happy life was found to be relationships. For example, according to the doctor, good sibling relationships were crucial. In fact, 93% of the men in the study who were thriving at 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger.

During the interview, the host opened the lines for callers, and asked "what have you learned about happiness over the years that would have surprised your younger self?" One interesting response came from a male caller who said that he learned that you are responsible for your own happiness. Don't expect others to make you happy, or you to make them happy. Not sure I fully agree with that statement. I think we do bear responsibility for our own happiness, but also for that of others, and we should never let happiness be someone's sole personal responsibility. The more we care about someone elses happiness, the happier we are in the long run. As Jimmy Durante very wisely sang,"Make someone happy. Make just one someone happy. And you will be happy too."

Sorry to get sidetracked. My own answer to the host's question would be that I've learned gratitude goes a long way towards being happy, not that this fact would necessarily surprise my younger self. If you live your life grateful for even the smallest of blessings and mercies each day, peace and happiness will come easily. Ralph H. Blum said "There is a calmness to a life lived in gratitude, a quiet joy." What do you think? What would your response be to the host's question?