Mark D. Roberts

The current issue of Atlantic Monthly has a long article with the title “What Makes Us Happy?” The author, Joshua Wolf Shenk, writes about the 72-year-long, in-depth study of 268 men from Harvard. He focuses considerable attention on the current director of this Grant Study, Dr. George Vaillant (pronounced “valiant”).
I will not survey this article here. I commend it to you for your own reading. But I do want to highlight a few crucial excerpts.
One of Vaillant’s primary contributions to the study of psychology has been the importance of “adaptations” to life (sometimes called “defense mechanisms”). Adaptions help us adapt (no surprise here) to what life throws at us. The healthiest and happiest people use “mature” adaptations to cope with life’s struggles, including: altruism, humor, anticipation, suppression (consicious), and sublimation. Neurotic adaptations are common among normal people, and they include: intellectualization, dissociation (not being aware of one’s feelings), and repression (unconscious). Moving further away from health we find “immature” adaptions, such as: acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy. The least healthy adapations would include: paranoia, hallucination, megalomania.
Vaillant identifies “seven major factors that predict healthy aging, both physically and psychologically.” Using mature adaptions is one key factor. The others are “education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, and healthy weight.” (I like the adjective that goes with exercise!) (Photo: The cover of Vaillant’s  book, Aging Well.)
Vaillant also points to  important of relationships in a life of health and happiness: “It is social aptitude, not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.” When asked in 2009 “What have you learned form the Grant Study men?”, Vaillant answered, “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships with people.”
If you’re like me, at this point you want to take stock of your life. I wonder: How do I react to life’s challenges? Are my adaptations mature? To what extent does my life containt the seven factors that contribute to healthy aging? Do I have strong, healthy relationships?

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