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 Happiness                      Gerry OShea

The Harvard Study of Adult Development, better known as the Happiness Project, was started in 1938 and the latest update was completed recently. It tracks the lives of 724 men from their teenage years – about 50 of that original cohort are still alive in their 90’s and they remain part of the research, but they are joined now by about 1200 children and grandchildren, all directly descended from the original members.

The group includes people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, from Harvard undergrads to teenagers from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. All male initially, but the project was joined by female family members when it moved to include the second generation and beyond.

Investigators survey the group every two years about their physical and mental health, their professional lives, their marriages, their friendships – and also subject them to periodic in-person interviews, medical exams, brain scans and blood tests.

The Happiness Project has a challenging agenda, attempting to determine scientifically through extensive interviews and tests how contentment is achieved. Why do some people enjoy a high level of satisfaction with their lives while others fail to find the happiness that every human being desires?

 Hereditary genetic influences account for about 50% of the human personality and outlook on life. The other half is mostly determined by individual attitude and lifestyle choices.

The study highlights the importance of early life happenings, how we are treated during our growing-up years. The level of family affirmation and love that young people experience provides a clear predictor of the degree of future contentment. The old Irish proverb concurs with the study’s findings: praise the young and they will blossom.

 Peter Quinn, author of Cross Bronx: A Writing Life, tells how his mother wisely insisted that when he and his brother were young and attended any social function, they were mandated by her to engage with other attendees and have a story to tell when they returned home.

On the other hand, the study pinpoints that needy and immature parents often see their offspring as an encumbrance in their lives, conveying the old negative attitude that children should be seen but not heard. The failure to respond positively to children’s needs augurs poorly for their later mental and emotional health.

The project highlights that 80% of millennials, encompassing people from around age 22 to 40, believe that accumulating money will assure a high level of satisfaction in life. They are convinced that acquiring a yacht and a mansion will mark them as successful and socially desirable people.

 The philosophy behind the American Dream, with its promise of a monetary payoff for long hours and hard work does not score well on the happiness scale. A hefty bank account does not corelate to emotional satisfaction.

50% of the same age group aspire to achieving fame, sometimes doused with heroism, which, they think, will open the door to a full life. What 18th century poet, Thomas Gray, identified in “Lines Written in a Country Churchyard” as 

The applause of list’ning senates to command,

The threats of pain and ruin to despise,

To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,

And read their hist’ry in a nation’s eyes.

These famous lines would certainly resonate with former president JFK who participated in the early years of the study. However, the wisdom emanating from a clear majority of the respondents suggests that fame, like money, at best, only contributes in a minor way to overall wellbeing.

The main ingredient for a happy life comes from the relationships people build with other people. Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, the study’s director and leader, draws a clear conclusion from the information accumulated, “it is the quality of your relationships that matter.”

 Looking back on their lives, people most often reported time spent with friends, family and acquaintances as evincing the most potent pride and satisfaction.

I took a course back in the 1970’s dealing with the drug culture that was prevalent in those years – remember when heroin and cocaine were the prevailing illegal stimulants. I recall the professor, Dr. Freudenberger, for two reasons. First, because he was a Holocaust survivor. He escaped from Germany on a false passport before Hitler’s war began.

Second, at the first lecture he handed out a pamphlet that he authored himself entitled “All the Lonely People” and we spent a few classes discussing the content. The fact that I am writing about this man and his booklet nearly fifty years later says a great deal about his exceptional talents and personality. Google reveals that he passed away in 1999.

I still have a copy of that Freudenberger handout. In it he focuses on the sense of isolation and alienation felt by many young people, which assuredly applies today also. Youngsters – during their teens and for years afterwards – need the supportive grounding in life skills that can come only from others. As the African wisdom proverb asserts: “A person becomes a person through other people.”

Connections are vital for mature living. The quality of communication that a young person enjoys with family members as well as with school or college mates largely determines a young person’s sense of coping and contentment.

Comfortable relationships extend to neighborhoods. Nick Kristoff, the writer and commentator, points out that people living in ethnic enclaves live significantly longer than their compatriots who settle in heterogeneous communities. Ethnic groups connect easier when they share a culture, sometimes including a language, with their neighbors. 

Dealing with crises is part of human living. Individuals and families understand Shakespeare’s words about “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that assail everybody to one extent or another. Think of the thousands of people destroyed by the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria and the level of acute sadness and estrangement felt by so many families.

The Harvard study focuses on the dangers of feeling left out and seeking a quick high at any age. Dr. Waldinger stresses the importance of maintaining contact not just with friends but also with as wide a circle of acquaintances as possible.

 A few close friends are invaluable for a healthy balanced life. Polonius’s advice to his son in “Hamlet” affirms the Harvard study’s central finding: “The friends thou hast and their adoption tried clasp them to thy soul with hoops of steel.”

William Wordsworth, the Romantic poet, treasured his friendship with his sister, Dorothy, and he wrote this loving invitation to her:

Then come, my sister, come I pray,

With speed put on your woodland dress,

And bring no book; for this one day,

We’ll give to idleness.

Gerry OShea blogs at


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