Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
One of the longest, continuing study of human development has been in the news lately with the recent publication of George Vaillant’s Triumphs of Experience. For the past thirty years Vaillant has been the director of the much-heralded Grant Study, named for the donor W. T. Grant, eponymous owner of an early chain of discount stores. The Grant study, begin in 1938, has followed 268 Harvard undergraduates throughout their lives, monitoring their physical and mental health and their successes and failures in life. Since the study was restricted to white, upper class subjects, any conclusions need to be very carefully vetted. But a few of the findings, highlighted by Vaillant, are of particular relevance to sustainability.
He claims that, “Alcoholism is a disease of great destructive order.” Not particularly startling or new by itself, but interesting in his observation that it led to, not followed, many other personal and social pathologies: divorce, mental illness and others. Coupled with cigarette smoking, it was the largest contribution to early morbidity and death. Stepping back and looking at society as a whole, I observe several analogous pathological addictions. One, hyperconsumption, like alcoholism, is manifest in behaviors. Our individual addiction to consumption as a means to well-being has created a set of societal pathologies, including crimes (theft) and misdemeanors (shoplifting), natural threats and impacts, and indirectly, inequality.
Our tight hold on objective reality and rationality as the fundamental beliefs in our societal structure reinforces the behavioral addiction to consumption. As long as we are told we are insatiable, needy people by all the ads we see and hear, and are pushed along by our dominant societal institutions (the market and technocracy everywhere), we are dragged along the consumerist flow without thinking about what it is doing to us. Those voices of society are very, very strong and restrain authentic and fulfilling behavior. Ultimately we are told by our leaders and experts that we must grow the economy at all costs, a process fueled only by more consumption.
Vaillant makes a second, very critical observation. The relationship between the subjects of the studies and their parents turned out to be a powerful predictor of their success in life and state of health as they aged. Correlations are not the same as causes, but always are suggestive. Good relations with mothers correlated with lower finding of dementia later in life, and, surprising to me, higher lifetime earnings. Similarly the warmth of their relationships with fathers correlated with less anxiety and higher subjective assessments of well-being. The important of remembered relationships is an indicator of the nature of caring activities between parent and child. While care has a general sense of acting out of concern for the other’s well-being, the care of parent, especially the mother, for their children is often called love, whereas the same kind of concern for others, say a team member or colleague, is rarely called love. Even more, to say that one loves his or her students or friends could easily be taken as breaking conventional boundaries. I was warned by my colleagues at MIT to be careful in how I spoke about my students. Years later, I have come to believe, as in my hidden thoughts then, that I loved my students in the sense of Maturana. I accepted and acknowledged them as human beings with a legitimate right to exist as they were. My role as teacher was just that: a role that I had chosen and that they expected me to play, but that was no excuse to see them as other that fully human, no matter how they struggled or prospered in my classes.
Vaillant’s findings are consistent with Maturana’s. For Maturana, love is the primary emotion that a newborn is enveloped in and, in turn, acts out of towards his parents, if only because the infant hasn’t had much of a chance to learn any other way of acting. As we become socialized into the culture, the emotion of love becomes merged into a large range of other possibilities coming from societal norms. Robert Plutchik developed a “wheel of emotions” ( see below) in the 1960s, emanating from four basic emotions, joy, trust, fear, and surprise, plus four so-called “opposites,” sadness, disgust, anger, and anticipation. He classified love as a human feeling, not an emotion, created as a combination of joy and trust. He follows the more conventional definition of love. The fundamental difference, an important one, is that Maturana sees emotions as the source of our actions, whereas Plutchik and others see them as a characterization of our reactions to the contextual world we confront.
The periphery of Plutchik’s wheel is dominated by what I would call negative feelings toward the world: remorse, contempt, aggressiveness, submission, disapproval. Awe and optimism are on the plus side of neutral, and only love is, for me, a fully positive category. As I noted, love is but a feeling in this system. At first glance, the impact of our modern world seems quite clear. Contempt can only be learned as one begins to assess those within one’s sphere of action.
This diagram reinforces my belief in Heidegger’s ontology of being, in which care is the structure on which our singular human character rests among all living creatures. Also my belief in Maturana’s biology of emotions, in general, and of love, in particular. His model of cognition, similar to those of more recent cognitive scientists, views us as a sort of sponge, learning as we live, that is, capturing the experience of our experience in our bodies and acting out of what we have stored. Emotions come as a sort of master determinant of our actions. If we are angry, because we observe something out there that triggers anger, our possible actions are limited to those in the “angry” storehouse in our memory. As in Plutchik’s scheme, many of our emotions tend to be dominating in connection with whatever interactions with others are involved. If not dominating, they do not offer much possibility of mutual, cooperative coordination.
Love is different. It is the basis of mutuality and care. It, more than any other emotion, opens up the possibility of flourishing. Vaillant comes to the same conclusion, but from the very different perspective of an observer of a single group of men over their lifetimes. He notes in a comment cited in an article in The Atlantic about the work that, “The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points . . to a straightforward conclusion: ‘Happiness is love. Full stop.’”
(Image: Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child)