Finding happiness in the saddest thing

May 18, 2009

I’d be annoyed at myself if I didn’t mention a lovely piece in The Atlantic, “What Makes Us Happy?” in which we learn about the Grant Study, an ongoing 60-year+ longitudinal investigation of 268 Harvard dudes, overseen by one George Vaillant.

Extreme comb-overs notwithstanding, I admire any scientist willing to treat psychoanalytic concepts seriously. From Vaillant’s taxonomy of defense mechanisms, also called adaptations:

The healthiest, or “mature,” adaptations include altruism, humor, anticipation (looking ahead and planning for future discomfort), suppression (a conscious decision to postpone attention to an impulse or conflict, to be addressed in good time), and sublimation (finding outlets for feelings, like putting aggression into sport, or lust into courtship).

Note that blogging intellectualization — “mutating the primal stuff of life into objects of formal thought” — ranks as a “neurotic” or third-tier adaptation, which will come back around when I post my thoughts on Daniel Pinchbeck.

“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.”

Oh, the nuance of it all!

So what makes us happy? According to Vaillant’s interpretation of the study data, happiness comes from deploying defense mechanisms in a way that facilitates warm social bonds.

Will Wilkinson among others likes this bit about the downside of happiness:

[P]ositive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs—protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections—but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.

I can’t help but think of my father, who died last October. It was one of the best things that’s happened to me in, I don’t even know, years? decades? I don’t feel so trapped in myself or in my life anymore. I left New York. I’m finally developing a healthy relationship with my mom and am slowly getting there with my younger brother. Intellectualization flirts with sublimation. I could credit other influences in bringing me to this point, but Pops Minkel’s mortal uncoiling was the catalyst for a lot of very positive change.

Here’s to the upside of sadness. Thanks, Bill.

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One Response to “Finding happiness in the saddest thing”


  1. […] good therapist teaches you to find the upside to your down traits, and then to isolate the negative world view that’s twisting the […]


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