In the June issue of The Atlantic, Joshua Wolf Shenk wrote an article titled "What Makes Us Happy?" chronicling a 72 year Harvard Study that tracks the lives of 268 men from the late 1930's to today. The project, called the Grant Study, is one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history. The article is perhaps the best I've ever read.
The piece is absolutely fascinating and unfolds like the best of short stories. It's long and tough to read on screen vs. in print, but well worth it.
Here's one of my favorite excerpts:
Most psychology preoccupies itself with mapping the heavens of health in sharp contrast to the underworld of illness. “Social anxiety disorder” is distinguished from shyness. Depression is defined as errors in cognition. Vaillant’s work, in contrast, creates a refreshing conversation about health and illness as weather patterns in a common space. “Much of what is labeled mental illness,” Vaillant writes, “simply reflects our ‘unwise’ deployment of defense mechanisms. If we use defenses well, we are deemed mentally healthy, conscientious, funny, creative, and altruistic. If we use them badly, the psychiatrist diagnoses us ill, our neighbors label us unpleasant, and society brands us immoral.”
This perspective is shaped by a long-term view. Whereas clinicians focus on treating a problem at any given time, Vaillant is more like a biographer, looking to make sense of a whole life—or, to take an even broader view, like an anthropologist or naturalist looking to capture an era...This means that a glimpse of any one moment in a life can be deeply misleading.
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.