Wednesday, May 13, 2009


I just finished a fascinating article in the Atlantic titled, "What Makes Us Happy?" written by Joshua Wolf Shank. An incredible digest of the 70+ year Grant Study of Harvard students and its longtime director, George Vaillant.

I am not sure that I had ever heard about it prior to reading the article, but it is truly worth the time to read and think things through. Since I've been trying to find my own slice of happiness in the world it should come as no surprise that many others have done the same and probably bounced around the same paths as I have.

Without permission, this one particular passage stood out:
case No. 218, continued

On first glance, you are the study’s exemplar. In Dr. Vaillant’s “decathlon” of mental health—10 measures, taken at various points between ages 18 and 80, including personality stability at ages 21 and 29, and social supports at 70—you have ranked in the top 10 of the Grant Study men the entire way through, one of only three men to have done so.

What’s your secret? Is it your steely resolve? After a major accident in college, you returned to campus in a back brace, but you looked healthy. You had a kind of emotional steel, too. When you were 13, your mother ran off with your father’s best friend. And though your parents reunited two years later, a pall of disquiet hung over your three-room apartment when the social worker came for her visit. But you said your parents’ divorce was “just like in the movies,” and that you someday “would like to have some marital difficulties” of your own.

After the war—during which you worked on a major weapons system—and graduate school, you married, and your bond with your wife only deepened over time. Indeed, while your mother remains a haunting presence in your surveys—eventually diagnosed with manic depression, she was often hospitalized and received many courses of shock therapy—the warmth of your relationship with your wife and kids, and fond memories of your maternal grandfather, seemed to sustain you.

Yet your file shows a quiet, but persistent, questioning about a path not taken. As a sophomore in college, you emphasized how much money you wanted to make, but also wondered whether you’d be better off in medicine. After the war, you said you were “too tense & high strung” and had less interest in money than before. At 33, you said, “If I had to do it all over again I am positive I would have gone into medicine—but it’s a little late.” At 44, you sold your business and talked about teaching high school. You regretted that (according to a study staff member’s notes) you’d “made no real contribution to humanity.” At 74, you said again that if you could do it over again, you would go into medicine. In fact, you said, your father had urged you to do it, to avoid the Army. “That annoyed me,” you said, and so you went another way.

There is something unreachable in your file. “Probably I am fooling myself,” you wrote in 1987, at age 63, “but I don’t think I would want to change anything.” How can we know if you’re fooling yourself? How can even you know? According to Dr. Vaillant’s model of adaptations, the very way we deal with reality is by distorting it—and we do this unconsciously. When we start pulling at this thread, an awfully big spool of thoughts and questions begins to unravel onto the floor.

You never seemed to pull the thread. When the study asked you to indicate “some of the fundamental beliefs, concepts, philosophy of life or articles of faith which help carry you along or tide you over rough spots,” you wrote: “Hard to answer since I am really not too introspective. However, I have an overriding sense (or philosophy) that it’s all a big nothing—or ‘chasing after wind’ as it says in Ecclesiastes & therefore, at least up to the present, nothing has caused me too much grief.”
That bolded passage above struck me - the very way we deal with reality is by distorting it. How can you know you are not distorting reality? And the subject's admission that "it's all a big nothing." Happiness is so elusive in its application to the human condition that it astounds me where other people find it, or how they relate to it in their lives.

Again, a fine article not only on the study itself but on what conclusions we can draw from it.

Friday, May 08, 2009

A Fill-Up On The Enthusiasm Tank

It has been some time since I have had any word on my application to the Peace Corps and honestly, without any news the whole idea recedes into the back of my mind if there isn't something new to ingest. Over the past week or two I have been more preoccupied with my upcoming vacation than with an update on my medical kit from Washington, D.C.

An enthusiasm gap was settling in - will I ever get going with this? Do I still want to do this if it should come to pass? Without the wind in my sails I felt more adrift, and just a touch less ready to get to that next stage.

Tonight's get together over in Northampton changed my perspective somewhat. Past and future Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) were invited to a pot luck dinner and meet-and-greet at a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer's (RPCV) house. This was the fastest 3 hours I've spent at a pot luck ever. The time whizzed by as I was privileged to speak with those who have already been through the process and gone through the emotions. My very good friend (and RPCV herself) Rebecca was there, as well as my brand new RPCV friends Joe, Jill, Sara, and "Betsy". Many more were in attendance but once you get rolling with the questions and the answers come at you in waves it is difficult to talk to and meet everyone. Probably about 20 in all were in attendance.

It is hard to pinpoint what I gleaned from the evening as there were 3 suggestions and 2 intriguing stories for every question I had, all of which I wanted to memorize or do my best to store away for later use if I am so lucky to be invited, but the most important thing I got from this evening was that connectedness to something bigger, grand, and exciting. It has been quite some time since I felt like that, possibly even going all the way back to the night where I couldn't sleep because I was thinking about applying. Just tremendous fun to talk about this possible life.

I really took too much of Sara's time with my questions, but she had served in Lesotho (a pronunciation that sounds much more like leh-SU-too than how I was accustomed to saying it) and I was zoning in on those who served in Africa without realizing it. Great information from her as she described what it was like living there, getting used to the situation, making new friends, and even coming back and the difficulties that imposes on the volunteer.

I could go on but the picture is pretty much done there - a friendlier group of people it would be hard to find.

As the night of stories moved along I realized that some of those old comforts that I am so used to right now won't be here for long if I really were depart in July or August (who knows when the date might be), so I strolled over to the convenience store that is open 24 hours a day just for a whim such as mine and walked out with a pint of ice cream. I know I shouldn't do that, but while I still can...

I made the exception. It was delicious! Enthusiasm and blood sugars are at an all-time high.