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.
Back in 2009 I read a piece in the New York Times by David Brooks about Vaillant and the study, in response to a longer piece published in the Atlantic about the same time entitled “What Makes Us Happy” written by Joshua Wolf .
These articles left a very lasting impression on me, because I’ve always been able to 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.
And the perplexing core point of these articles came squarely back into the forefront my mind this week in the wake of the recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, two seemingly well-adjusted and fulfilled “successful” humans and public figures.
It’s what Brooks called “the complexity of human affairs before which science and analysis simply stands mute“.
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 begs once the onion gets fully peeled is a critical 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.
For those of us that are able to actively cultivate them, and then in turn allow those relationships to nurture and sustain us as we navigate and observe our “complex human affairs” that oftentimes leave us dumbfounded and without answers, we can perhaps not only keep ourselves over the bar, but pull many more people over with us.
And in effect, achieve a critical mass of humans practicing what Joshua Wolf surmised at the end of his Atlantic piece as the key to a good life, pulled out of the Grant Study’s 270 stories: “not rules to follow, nor problems to avoid, but an engaged humility, an earnest acceptance of life’s pains and promises“.
That would be a very, very good thing.