Tuesday, May 12, 2009

George Vaillant 42 years later

George Vaillant, a psychology professor at Harvard, inherited what was then the Grant Project. Under Vaillant’s hands, it became the largest- and longest-ever longitudinal study of human psychology.

Atlantic Monthly has an update on Vaillant’s work after 42 years.

Although not planned as such, the survey has many invaluable spinoffs, including seeing how manic-depressive or bipolar illness was eventually distinguished from schizophrenia, the state of development in psychology in general, information on human happiness and its whys, and more.

The more includes it becoming an invaluable longitudinal source on drug and alcohol addiction and recovery.

Apropos of that and other things, the Atlantic story has a couple of good rhetorical questions:
Can the good life be accounted for with a set of rules? Can we even say who has a “good life” in any broad way?

Probably not, unless, riffing on Thomas Szasz, we rely on groupthink societal definitions of what the “good life” is. Or, what “happiness” is, for that matter.

That said, Vaillant himself developed some intriguing findings about “positive” emotions:
In fact, Vaillant went on, positive 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.

To illustrate his point, he told a story about one of his “prize” Grant Study men, a doctor and well-loved husband. “On his 70th birthday,” Vaillant said, “when he retired from the faculty of medicine, his wife got hold of his patient list and secretly wrote to many of his longest-running patients, ‘Would you write a letter of appreciation?’ And back came 100 single-spaced, desperately loving letters—often with pictures attached. And she put them in a lovely presentation box covered with Thai silk, and gave it to him.” Eight years later, Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box down from his shelf. “George, I don’t know what you’re going to make of this,” the man said, as he began to cry, “but I’ve never read it.” “It’s very hard,” Vaillant said, “for most of us to tolerate being loved.”

I will vouch for that indeed.

Of course, so could Vaillant.

He got married three times, and after six years with Wife No. 3, went back to Wife No. 2.

No comments: