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Life’s complications throw stereotypes out the window

In the late 1930s, a group of 268 promising young men, including John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradlee, entered Harvard College. By any normal measure, they had it made. They tended to be bright, polished, affluent and ambitious. They had the benefit of the world’s most prestigious university. They had been selected even from among Harvard students as the most well adjusted.

And yet the categories of journalism and the stereotypes of normal conversation are paltry when it comes to predicting a life course. Their lives played out in ways that would defy any imagination save Dostoyevsky’s. A third of the men would suffer at least one bout of mental illness. Alcoholism would be a running plague. The most mundane personalities often produced the most solid success. One man couldn’t admit to himself that he was gay until he was in his late 70s.

The men were the subject of one of the century’s most fascinating longitudinal studies. They were selected when they were sophomores, and they have been probed, poked and measured ever since.

The results from the study, known as the Grant Study, have surfaced periodically in the years since. But they’ve never been so brilliantly captured as they are in an essay called “What Makes Us Happy?” by Joshua Wolf Shenk in the forthcoming issue of The Atlantic. The essay is available online.

The life stories are more vivid than any theory one could concoct to explain them. One man seemed particularly gifted. He grew up in a large brownstone, the son of a rich doctor and an artistic mother. By 31, he had developed hostile feelings toward his parents and the world. By his mid-30s, he had dropped off the study’s radar. Interviews with his friends after his early death revealed a life spent wandering, dating a potentially psychotic girlfriend, smoking a lot of dope and telling hilarious stories.

Another man was the jester of the group, possessing in college a “bubbling, effervescent personality.” He got married, did odd jobs, then went into public relations and had three kids.

He got divorced, married again, ran off with a mistress who then left him. He drank more and more heavily. He grew depressed but then came out of the closet and become a major figure in the gay rights movement. He continued drinking, though, convinced he was squeezing the most out of life. He died at age 64 when he fell down the stairs in his apartment building while drunk.

The study had produced a stream of suggestive correlations. The men were able to cope with problems better as they aged. The ones who suffered from depression by 50 were much more likely to die by 63. The men with close relationships with their siblings were much healthier in old age than those without them.

Shenk’s treatment is superb because he weaves in the life of George Vaillant, the man who for 42 years has overseen this work. Vaillant’s overall conclusion is familiar and profound. Relationships are the key to happiness. “Happiness is love. Full Stop,” he says in a video.

In his professional life, he has lived out that creed. He has been an admired and beloved colleague and mentor. But the story is more problematic at home. When he was 10, his father, an apparently happy and accomplished man, went out by the pool of the Main Line home and shot himself. His mother shrouded the episode. They never attended a memorial service nor saw the house again.

He has been through three marriages and returned to his second wife. His children tell Shenk of a “civil war” at home and describe long periods when they wouldn’t speak to him. His oldest friend says he has a problem with intimacy.

Even when we know something, it is hard to make it so. Reading this essay, I had the same sense I had while reading Christopher Buckley’s description of his parents in The New York Times Magazine not long ago. There is a complexity to human affairs before which science and analysis simply stands mute. ...

David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, can be reached at: New York Times, 620 8th Avenue, New York, NY 10018.

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