If We Know HOW to be Happy, How Come We Still Can’t BE Happy?

“Even though you’ve grasped the bar,

you still need to pull yourself over it”

Picture you are a researcher, looking over one of the most comprehensive long-term studies of human behavior.  You spend 42 years with nearly 270 men, studying their lives.

While the human mystery generates 270 different stories that, on the surface, defy any explanation, one fundamental truth comes out – relationships are absolutely critical to happiness.

“Happiness is Love; full stop” you proclaim.

Now that you’ve made this discovery, you can now find your own happiness, and live blissfully for the rest of your life.

Well, not exactly.

It doesn’t always work that way.  It didn’t work for George Vaillant, the actual researcher who oversaw the famous “Grant Study” of those 270 people.

David Brooks recently wrote about Vaillant and the study in the NY Times, in response to a longer piece about it entitled “What Makes Us Happy” written by Joshua Wolf in the Atlantic.

I read these articles and could easily imagine the utter frustration that would result from having the proverbial firm grasp on the happiness bar, but not being able to pull yourself over it.

It’s a vivid and classic illustration of what Brooks calls “the complexity of human affairs before which science and analysis simply stands mute“.

On the other hand, there are millions of people, I’m sure, who “practice happiness” without the benefit of a scientific study to prove they are doing the right thing.  They jumped over the bar without even knowing there was a bar to jump in the first place.

This leads to a question that has been attempted to be answered by many, many philosophers, teachers, book writers, bloggers, and life coaches- can happiness be taught?

Perhaps what the study reveals is a better question- if good relationships are critical to happiness, isn’t it really the relationship skills themselves that hold the key, and thus we as a society should be paying much more attention to this in our children’s formidable learning years?

That seemed to be Vaillant’s problem – he had a rough childhood and developed a real fear of intimacy, a fear that not even the full compelling force of a preponderance of data could overcome.

There, alas, is the conflict for the ages – the battle between logic and emotion.

While that battle cannot always be won, we can at least arm ourselves with yet another strong piece of evidence that relationships really, really matter.

And for those of us that are able to actively cultivate them we can perhaps not only keep ourselves over the bar, but pull many more people over with us.

Because a happier world is a better world.


  1. says

    Happiness can’t be taught. Neither can relationship. I’m glad you didn’t title this, “10 ways to be happy…” or some such traffic-getter.

    I think it’s valuable to study happiness & relationship, but often the results of those studies want to be reduced to a prescription.

    Really, both are a practice. The practice of the inner you. Both are sourced there.

  2. says

    It is a mistake to play cause-and-effect games with happiness and relationship evidence. People with a tendency toward finding happiness in any circumstance are more likely to find relationships which are satisfying. Isn’t that as logical a conclusion as one in which relationship is treated as the causal factor?

    My Sufi-mystic side insists upon my agreement with Pamir in his comment just before mine. It is in coming to find our inner selves that we then manifest happiness, peace in our relationships, fulfillment in our life’s path.

    It is all a harmonious outcome of the acceptance of self, knowledge of Self, love of Self.

  3. says

    Pamir nailed it. Isn’t the relationship most critical to happiness the one you have with yourself? I think relationships with other people are secondary to that…if I am at peace with myself then I’m open to relationships with others. And then there’s the spiritual/faith components. To me, those are also important although some would disagree of course.

    Relationship is something that’s frequently on my mind with regard to my children. Since we home school I am pretty vigilant about making sure they have friends, etc. One of my older boys is often deeply concerned about being “cool” enough for other children. Which got me to wondering, what is cool?

    I think it’s essentially self-confidence.

    Is that something I can teach? Hmmmm. I’m going to say no. I can walk with my children through situations, I can try to coach them when the time is right, and I can do my best to arm them against difficulty. Ultimately though, it’s up to them to figure out the magic formula and join the world.

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