Saturday, June 6, 2009

What Makes Us Happy?

I have just read a remarkable article in Atlantic monthly by Joshua Wolf Shenk, What Makes Us Happy? It's a question that is central, of course, to Buddhist thought--which is why I embarked on the long article in the first place. The subject of the piece is a 72-year study of 268 men who entered Harvard in the late 30's, following them through World War II, their subsequent careers, marriages and relationships, through fatherhood and grand-fatherhood to old age and, in many cases, death. As readers of The Buddha Diaries will already know, I have long had a special interest in men and the challenges they face, as men, in the course of their lives, so the study had an added fascination for me. It's long-time chief researcher, shepherd, protector and curator of the archives, George Vaillant, is the main focus of Shenk's article and--as we discover at the end, a man who has struggled with his own angels and demons along the way.

So what does make us happy? In the course of the article--and, by extension, the study itself--we are invited to observe a great deal of its opposite: broken marriages, abandoned children, alcoholism, feelings of inadequacy and failure, of lives wasted, opportunities squandered, depression, and suicide... all these amongst men of remarkable social privilege and, frequently, wealth. From the Buddhist point of view, I was struck by what Wolf expounds, at length, as Vaillant's "main interpretive lens." I quote from his article:

His main interpretive lens has been the psychoanalytic metaphor of “adaptations,” or unconscious responses to pain, conflict, or uncertainty. Formalized by Anna Freud on the basis of her father’s work, adaptations (also called “defense mechanisms”) are unconscious thoughts and behaviors that you could say either shape or distort—depending on whether you approve or disapprove—a person’s reality.

Vaillant explains defenses as the mental equivalent of a basic biological process. When we cut ourselves, for example, our blood clots—a swift and involuntary response that maintains homeostasis. Similarly, when we encounter a challenge large or small—a mother’s death or a broken shoelace—our defenses float us through the emotional swamp. And just as clotting can save us from bleeding to death—or plug a coronary artery and lead to a heart attack—defenses can spell our redemption or ruin. Vaillant’s taxonomy ranks defenses from worst to best, in four categories.

At the bottom of the pile are the 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. One level up are the “immature” adaptations, which include acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy. These aren’t as isolating as psychotic adaptations, but they impede intimacy. “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, Vaillant says, can involve “seemingly inexplicable naïveté, memory lapse, or failure to acknowledge input from a selected sense organ.” 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).

As I understand it, then, "adaptations" have a great deal in common with what I have learned to recognize, in Buddhist teachings, as "reactive patterns" of behavior, where we get caught up in unconscious, thought-less responses to situations that often bear negative, painful results. The goal, through meditation, is to achieve those "mature" and "healthy" adaptations that lead, instead, to happiness for ourselves and others. Vaillant's analysis of the four categories strikes me as a useful one--and one in which I recognize both the skillful and unskillful strategies I watch myself employ.

Happiness, it turns out--not to my great surprise--has little to do with wealth, profession or career, or social circumstance. It has little to do, indeed, with "success" as it's commonly understood: so many people whose success we might envy turn out to be deeply unhappy people. I suspect, though I have no evidence for this, that the sad death of the actor David Carradine may be but the most recent example of this truth. Happiness is rather the result of the angle of our vision, the way we choose to look at the experience life brings us--the "healthy" adaptation strategies that allow us to see ourselves and others through the lens of what I'd prefer to call "metta"--goodwill and compassion.


thailandchani said...



Paul said...

Peter, along with healthy adaptations are "adjustments," which, psychologically speaking, are better choices.

Whereas adaptations are subconscious reactions, adjustments are the intentional acts we do when we recognize and respond to a bad situation. Presumably they are positive actions based on wisdom.

Coincidentally, I was talking to someone earlier today about happiness, and I mentioned this video.

You may enjoy it.

buddhist amulet said...