Happiness is Love. Full Stop

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When David Brooks stays away from partisan politics, his columns generally make interesting reading. Brooks has become a diligent amateur sociologist (like I am), and now often writes about complexity, post-normal science, and non-Cartesian models of human consciousness and action. Today, he reports on a fascinating study that tracked some 200 Harvard men from their graduation through the rest of their lives. For the past 42 years, a psychiatrist, George Valliant has been overseeing the collection and analysis of the data.

Brooks drew his column from an article about the so-called Grant Study to be published in the next issue of the Atlantic, and now available on the Internet. Here's the header for that article.

Is there a formula—some mix of love, work, and psychological adaptation—for a good life? For 72 years, researchers at Harvard have been examining this question, following 268 men who entered college in the late 1930s through war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and old age. Here, for the first time, a journalist gains access to the archive of one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history. Its contents, as much literature as science, offer profound insight into the human condition—and into the brilliant, complex mind of the study’s longtime director, George Vaillant.

The study was to use the most up-to-date scientific tools to reveal the factors that produced both positive and negative outcomes over one's life.

Exhaustive medical exams noted everything from major organ function, to the measure of lactic acid after five minutes on a treadmill, to the size of the “lip seam” and the hanging length of the scrotum. Using a new test called the electroencephalograph, the study measured the electrical activity in the brain, and sought to deduce character from the squiggles. During a home visit, a social worker took not only a boy’s history—when he stopped wetting his bed, how he learned about sex—but also extensive medical and social histories on his parents and extended family. The boys interpreted Rorschach inkblots, submitted handwriting samples for analysis, and talked extensively with psychiatrists. They stripped naked so that every dimension of their bodies could be measured for “anthropometric” analysis, a kind of whole-body phrenology based on the premise that stock character types could be seen from body proportions.

The individual tales summarized in the Atlantic article are full of pathos, joy, success, happiness, and failure. But the most stunning thing about the whole story is the terse concluding comment of Dr. Valliant in a video embedded in the article. (I would put it here, but I still don't know how to do it.) He simply said the words that headline this post: "Happiness is love. Full stop." So much for all that science. Brooks also thinks so. His last line is, "There is a complexity to human affairs before which science and analysis simply stands mute." If those seeking sustainability would also come to this awareness, we would not go down so many blind alleys.

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