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Happiness is love, full stop?

Recently the Atlantic (see here) published results of a 72-year longitudinal study, known as the Grant Study. The study, led  by psychiatrist George Vaillant, followed the lives of 268 men who entered Harvard University in the late 30s .The goal of the research was to identify a “formula” for a happy and successful life.

One of the key words of the study outcomes is “adaptation” to reality  (what Freudians call “defence mechanisms”). When people have to face a challenge, they can respond to it in different ways. Vaillant talks about four kinds of adaptations: “psychotic” (like paranoia, hallucination and megalomania, all of which cause isolation), “immature” (passive aggression, hypochondria, fantasy, all reactions that impede intimacy), “neurotic” (these are common among “normal” people and include intellectualization, dissociation and repression). Finally, the mature and healthy defences include altruism, humour, anticipation, suppression and sublimation.
Vaillant defines these mature defences as “analogous to the involuntary grace by which an oyster, coping with an irritating grain of sand, creates a pearl. Humans, too, when confronted with irritants, engage in unconscious but often creative behaviour.”

Besides adaptations, relationships play a central rule in a happy life. Vaillant, having seen some results offrom this study said “that the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”
Good emotions such awe, love, compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, joy, hope, and trust seem to be necessary  elements to happiness too, and Vaillant  tersely declared “Happiness is love, full stop”.

So, love and happiness is the answer. But life is tricky and here the figures don’t add up, as this study clearly shows.
Even if many of us would agree that being deeply in love with someone who is deeply in love with us is probably the most fulfilling experience in life, people tend to avoid positive emotions.
As Vaillant points out “fear and sadness have immediate payoffs—protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections—but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.” And he also said, commenting about a man who couldn’t read love letters from friends,  “It’s very hard, for most of us, to tolerate being loved.”

But if it is hard to tolerate being loved, how can we gain that highest level of happiness that can come exclusively from relationships, from someone who is “other” from ourselves?
There are people who are not scared to risk being hurt if there is a chance to be truly happy, but “the most of us” cannot tolerate to take this risk. In these cases it is like a preventive strong mechanism of defence is activated in order to protect the person from deep feelings, no regards if they are good or bad ones.
So if it were possible to take a pill that could make us happy, what should we go for?
Should neuro-enhancement work to make us mildly but constantly OK or should we aspire to bring down preventive self defences in order to be able to get the deepest emotions of lives?

Many common anti depressant pills protect the person from strong, deep feelings, but I’m not sure it is worth living such a tepid existence. Perhaps the best help science can give to people is to  create both kinds of  pills that 1) help   to get rid of these preventive defences and also 2) pills that enhance adaptation so that it will be easier to face pain using  a mature kind of defence.
For now it’s up to us to decide if it’s worthwhile taking the risk of letting people love us or not (with all the implication of the case), but maybe the Grant study can give us a clue about what is the best choice.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. “[H]appiness and misfortune [Glück und Unglück] are two siblings and twins who either grow up together or […] *remain small* together!”

    — Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 338

  2. Our current culture doesn’t have much experience in culturing proper defences, which is probably the reason for the high incidence of psychological problems in (for example Sweden) – heartbreak and job stress become medicalized as depressions or burnout, rather than treated as something everyday that should be overcome. This produces a feedback loop that makes the culture even less able to handle stresses. But the ability to treat the truly pathological states of depression or anxiety *is* valuable. Often people in those states benefit by pills and other methods that bring them back enough to normal functioning so that they can then use other, more personal (I’m sceptical of calling it “authentic”) means to further their functioning.

    As a perennially happy person, I think I was lucky with my genetics (and memetics) – even though I note that my stable good mood might preclude appropriate melancholy or sorrow, and maybe even makes me a bit shallow. But it gives me hedonic pleasure and enables enough openness to achieve some excellence.

    Many of the claims of the great benefits of overcoming personal traumas, misfortune or negative emotions have been written by the victors – those people who succeeded in the process. We seldom hear from the people who failed in the struggle against bitterness or fear.

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