Researcher and Writer in Washington, DC

Atlantic Article on Happiness

In this lengthy piece, Shenk writes of a 72 year study of Harvard men and their well-being.

It is an interesting read.  Specialization in fields (sociology vs. biology vs. psychiatry vs…) is a good thing, but a side effect is that it has turned academia into a place that is not very welcoming to scholars who try to put the whole picture.  I am pleased to see Shenk report that happiness scholars are reappearing in academia. Figuring out what makes humans happy is the most important subject of all, no?

One bit in this piece especially caught my eye. Speaking of Professor George Vaillant, Shenk wrote:

His 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. Formalized by Anna Freud on the basis of her father’s work, adaptations (also called “defense mechanisms”) are unconscious thoughts and behaviors that you could say either shape or distort—depending on whether you approve or disapprove—a person’s reality.

Vaillant explains defenses as the mental equivalent of a basic biological process. When we cut ourselves, for example, our blood clots—a swift and involuntary response that maintains homeostasis. Similarly, when we encounter a challenge large or small—a mother’s death or a broken shoelace—our defenses float us through the emotional swamp. And just as clotting can save us from bleeding to death—or plug a coronary artery and lead to a heart attack—defenses can spell our redemption or ruin. Vaillant’s taxonomy ranks defenses from worst to best, in four categories.

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 naïveté, 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).

In contrast to Anna Freud, who located the origins of defenses in the sexual conflicts of a child, Vaillant sees adaptations as arising organically from the pain of experience and playing out through the whole lifespan. [Underlining added.]

Of course, these are simple frames, but they are useful, and they can help us think about others and ourselves. E.g., Tom mostly employs  mature adaptations, Tim sadly is prone to both psychotic and neurotic adaptions, while Jeff is a happy guy and an intellectualizer. And me, well I … (snip)

Clearly, nobody uses just one type of adaptation always. Some folks are mostly happy clams, unruffled by all the world throws at them.  And then they snap over some antagonism that others view as a common irritant. As they say, everyone has certain things that really push one’s buttons.

Does anyone doubt that external stimuli can stress animals and make them miserable?  Nobody that I know.  Yet, we humans often find it difficult to recognize that these shocks are working on us and that we can, with practice, learn to recognize them and respond healthily.

Perhaps this is an argument for more character education, though not quite the sort that often is peddled by the moralizers in society, who equate good character with a cluster of desirable beliefs: patriotism, honesty, earnestness, etc.

Source: Joshua Wolf Shenk, “What Makes Us Happy?” The Atlantic, June 2009, pp.  36-53.

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