Atlantic magazine’s June 2009 cover story, “What Makes Us Happy?”, was about a compelling longitudinal study of 268 male Harvard students. Starting in the late 1930s, the study has covered 72 years to date and is ongoing. All unknowns at the start, the study includes such luminaries as President John F. Kennedy (file sealed till 2040) and Ben Bradlee, now 88, former editor of The Washington Post. The study was conducted mainly via annual questionnaires and interviews every 5 years or so. The purpose evolved over time, but one thrust was how do we humans manage to live a “good life,” however we choose to define it?
Turns out a key to living the good life is our ability to adapt to the vicissitudes of life. Evidently there is a lot of truth in the old adage, “Life turns out best for those who make the best of how things turn out.”
Defining adaptations as “unconscious responses to pain, conflict, or uncertainty”, the study found that its subject’s adaptations (emotional defenses) fell into four categories, listed here in ascending order of effectiveness (quoted directly from the article):
1. “Unhealthiest, or ‘psychotic’ adaptations—like paranoia, hallucination, or megalomania—which, while they can serve to make reality tolerable for the person employing them, seem crazy to anyone else.”
2. “’Immature’ adaptations, which include acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy. These aren’t as isolating as psychotic adaptations, but they impede intimacy.”
3. “’Neurotic’ defenses are common in ‘normal’ people. These include intellectualization (mutating the primal stuff of life into objects of formal thought); dissociation (intense, often brief, removal from one’s feelings); and repression, which…can involve ‘seemingly inexplicable naïveté, memory lapse, or failure to acknowledge input from a selected sense organ.’”
4. “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).”
Lest you think, “Harvard? What problems could these privileged elite have?”, it turns out that episodes (as distinct from life-long) of mental illness may be a lot more frequent then we think: “By age 50, almost a third of the men at one time or another met (the study’s) criteria for mental illness.”
Overall message? Mature adaptations (#4 above) are “real life alchemy, a way of turning the dross of emotional crises, pain and deprivation into the gold of human connection, accomplishment and creativity.”
In the final analysis, life is what we make of it. Stumbling blocks or stepping stones, our choice.