“What Makes Us Happy?”
It’s an eternal mystery, and it's also the title of a fascinating article by Joshua Wolf Shenk in the June Atlantic. Shenk was given access to archives of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has been following a group of men—Harvard College sophomores in the late 1930s—for over 70 years. About half of the original 268 are still living.
Reading their stories and talking with the study’s longtime director, psychiatrist George Vaillant, Shenk tried to find reasons for some men’s happiness and others’ dissatisfaction, failure, or ill health. The key to happiness proved elusive and complex, but one factor stood out. Shenk reports:
In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”
Tony Woodlief, writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, comments on the Atlantic article and half a dozen other sources in “Ya Gotta Have (Real) Friends.” Woodlief links to Jeffrey Zaslow’s WSJ article “The Ties That Bind,” pointing out that women are more likely than men to cultivate lifelong friendships. Zaslow cites
a 14-year project at Flinders University in Australia that tracked 1,500 women as they aged. The study found that close friendships—even more than close family ties—help prolong women’s lives. Those with the most friends lived 22% longer than those with the fewest friends.
Woodlief points out that Facebook “friends” don’t really count. But how do we keep in contact with flesh-and-blood friends who live far away?
I’m still in touch with several childhood friends. Sharon and I met the summer we were 8; she has lived in Italy for the last 35 years. Kathleen and Molly and I met the summer we were 12; now we live in Maryland, Idaho, and Illinois. Thank goodness for Penny—we met at age 13—who lives only an hour away! And for airlines—Molly visited in May, and I’ll be seeing Sharon and Kathleen later this year.
Some of my post-college friends are amazed that we've all kept in touch. It helps that we all grew up in a well-networked subculture, and that we knew each other's parents and siblings and cousins. It also helps that, even though we didn't all go to the same college, we each spent a year in the same little school in Haute-Savoie, France. Not even the same year, but we sneaked out of the same dorm and bought Swiss chocolate in the same stores and knew the same shortcut up the hill to our school (turn right at the dog).
I wish we all lived in the same city now. Paris would do.