Friday, August 6, 2010

I just read a really fascinating article from The Atlantic published June 2009 about the Harvard Grant study, which “followed 268 men who entered college in the late 1930s through war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and old age” to try and answer the question: “is there a formula—some mix of love, work, and psychological adaptation—for a good life?”

It depends on how one defines a good life. If there is one single thing you aim and strive for in life, be it money, fame, children, whatever, then you're missing out on the MIX part, the balance that I think is necessary to be happy.

If the definition of a successfully life is a long one which, at the end of it, one feels generally happy and feels generally well, then here’s what you have to do:
  • Use mature adaptations (more on that below),
  • Get educated,
  • Maintain a stable marriage,
  • Not smoke,
  • Not abuse alcohol,
  • Get some exercise,
  • Maintain a healthy weight,
  • And maintain good relationships, especially with your siblings.
Note the importance of the verb maintain there. I didn't do that on purpose, that's just how these things have to be written if you want to make them an actionable command. These are things that you have to work at over time - your whole life in fact.

The funny thing about the article is, after so many years of tests and surveys and research, the results are very simple and straightforward. I suppose it's the putting them into practice that is the hard part. When asked what the secret to a good life is, psychiatrist George Vaillant, who has been the chief curator of this study for 42 years, essentially said two things:

“That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”
“What we do, [as in our work] affects how we feel just as much as how we feel affects what we do.”
For me, that means people, to be live a long, happy, healthy life, need a purpose: work that keeps them busy and means something, contributes to the larger world in a positive way and good relationships with other people.

The article explained adaptations as defenses against emotional challenges we face, large and small, every day. There are four levels:
  • Psychotic: “like paranoia, hallucination, or megalomania, which, while they can serve to make reality tolerable for the person employing them, seem crazy to anyone else.”
  • Immature: “acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy. These aren’t as isolating as psychotic adaptations, but they impede intimacy.”
  • Neurotic: which “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."
  • And mature: 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).”
It seems like all the people who drive me nuts, that I very much dislike, and can't stand generally, exhibit immature adaptations. Isn't that comforting?

I didn't understand the intellectualization adaptation, which is why I looked it and most of the others up and linked to their Wikipedia articles. I think I didn't fully understand it because I use it. I don't feel to bad though, because Bones uses it to a much greater extreme than I do.

Maybe because I'm a virgo, but I had a lot of fun looking to see where I fit into all of this.

I have pretty good relationships with my family, and I have good friends who are important to me and I think I'm important to them.

I'm well educated, I think, and plan to be more so.

I don't exercise enough and I probably drink too much. That doesn't bother me at the moment, but I'm beginning to think I ought to pay more attention now, in my young-and-healthy-20s. So that's something I know I need to work on.

I'm getting married in September and I couldn't be happier about it, so I although I know we need to work at maintaining our relationship for the long haul, I'm optimistic.

And as for adaptations, I think I use humor, anticipation, and supression effectively, but opt for projection and intellectualization than altruism or sublimination. But it was also comforting that the study showed, over time, nearly all the subjects gradually adopted "mature" adaptations and shed the lower ones.

This led me to think: what about when I KNOW I'm acting out, being passive aggressive, and projecting as a reaction to some emotional unpleasentness, and that there's a better reaction, but react that way anyway? Is that just immaturity that will go away with time; just me being 23 and taking advantage of the opportunity to sort of get away with it? Or is it truly immature behavior that I need to work on? Honestly, sometimes its more satisfying to slam a door or whine or blame the weather than take responsibility for myself, even when I know its wrong, if only for a little while. I suppose it is for everyone.

Maybe, being an "adult" in Gen Y is about striving for the always doing the right thing, but, unlike other generations, being ok when you don't make it. As long as you're honest about the process.

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