What Makes Us Happy?

“The job isn’t conforming. It isn’t keeping up with the Jones’. It is playing and working and loving; and loving is probably the most important. Happiness is love, full stop.” Dr. Valliant

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Dr. Valliant


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         What does it mean to live well? Aristotle said that everything we do is for the purpose of some good end. The highest good end, the one which is never achieved for the sake of another, higher end, is happiness. For Aristotle, the way to happiness was to live a life in accordance with our rationality, avoiding extremes and following the “Golden Mean.”

         Since 1937, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has been attempting to answer the same question, albeit in a more scientific way. Beginning in the early 1940’s the study began following 248 “well-adjusted” Harvard sophomore men, evaluating them psychologically, physically, emotionally, intellectually, and from every other possible angle you can imagine. The premise for the study was the conviction that “dividing the body up into symptoms and diseases – and viewing it through the lenses of a hundred micro-specialties – could never shed light on the urgent questions of how, on the whole, to live well.” While during the early years, some of the researchers and investors became disenchanted with the lack of immediate results, eventually they came to find that “longitudinal studies, like wines, improve with age.”

      For the past 42 years, Dr. Valliant has been the chief researcher, and storyteller of these 249 “Brothers Karamazovs,” each man’s story resembling a complex russian novel. What has he found? Well, says Valliant (quoting William Blake) “Joy and woe are woven fine.” He found that many of the men from the study achieved greatly (one was John F. Kennedy) and many of the men suffered from mental illness (and those two things are not mutually exclusive). He found that “under the tweed jackets of these Harvard elites beat troubled hearts.”  He found that some who showed the most promise, crashed the hardest. He found that some things mattered much (defense mechanisms, smoking and drinking, and exercise) while others mattered less (cholesterol levels and social ease).

      In the end, though, what mattered the most is relationships, “warm relationships.” Happiness at 80 years, is best characterized by the relationships one has. Real happiness is the dirty laundry room after the kids and grandkids have been playing and gardening together. “Happiness is love, full stop.” This is a far cry from Aristotle’s Golden Mean.

      If we are made in God’s image, and “God is love” (1 John 4:8) certainly part of what that means is that we are most fully who we are created to be when we are loving those around us.  So I ask myself. What am I doing today that is harmful to the relationships in my life that are most important? What am I doing to nurture these relationships – with my friends, my parents, my wife, my God – and what am I doing only for myself? I do not want to be the type of person who is old, grumpy, and alone. How about you?