Some people seem to grow in wisdom, contentment and happiness as they age, while others become more miserable. What makes the difference? Finding the answer to that question has been the life's work of Dr. George E. Vaillant of Harvard Medical School. He has tracked the progress of more than 800 people — members of three historic studies — as they moved through life. One study involved 268 Harvard students born around 1920. (John F. Kennedy, born in 1917, was one of them.) Another involved 456 socially disadvantaged men born around 1930. And the third involved 90 intellectually gifted women born around 1910, with an IQ above 140 as measured by Lewis Terman, the Stanford University professor who developed a widely used intelligence test.
Surprisingly, a difficult childhood, even one filled with abuse, does not predict unhappiness. "What goes right in childhood predicts the future far better than what goes wrong," Vaillant says in Aging Well, his analysis of the study participants so far.
Robust health also proves to be surprisingly unimportant. Happy people, for the most part, simply adapt to ailments, Vaillant found.
What seems to contribute to happiness more than anything else, according to Vaillant, are the "coping mechanisms" we all develop to blunt the inevitable pain that life brings. Mature coping mechanisms, such as humor, a hopeful outlook, the suppression of hostility and anger, and a willingness to do unto others as you would have others do unto you, can reduce conflict, stave off depression, facilitate enjoyable relationships with others, and make life seem fulfilling and fun, according to Vaillant.
Immature coping mechanisms tend to have the opposite effect. For example, if you project your own childish impulses toward anger, jealousy, revenge and cruelty onto others, you're more likely to perceive others as angry, jealous, vengeful and cruel even when they aren't. Needless to say, this will complicate your relationships and increase the amount of interpersonal strife you experience. And if you deal with frustration by staging self-pity in a vain effort to win sympathy, or by tantrums in an effort to get your way, other people are likely to pull away.
"Paying attention to your coping mechanisms helps you be more tolerant and understanding of people around you, which in turn is helpful with social support," said Vaillant, 77, during a phone call from California. "Being more aware — pulling into consciousness your immature coping mechanisms so you realize they're not very helpful to you and very annoying to others — will make you feel better."
By studying the life histories of the people in the three studies, who periodically fill out questionnaires and submit to detailed interviews, Vaillant has concluded that alcoholism, often interpreted as a sign of unhappiness, actually contributes enormously to unhappiness. He became so concerned about this that he wrote a book about it, The Natural History of Alcoholism Revisited. The first line: "Alcoholism is a disorder of great destructive power."
The biggest single contributor to happiness and healthy aging that Vaillant has identified involves relationships with other people.
"Everybody's coping mechanisms tend to be more mature if they're holding the hand of someone they trust," Vaillant said.
• A painful childhood doesn't predict the development of destructive coping mechanisms, but a happy childhood seems to contribute significantly to aging well.
• An outgoing personality might make one popular in youth, but that advantage diminishes over time and contributes little to healthy aging. The people Vaillant studied seem to echo Albert Einstein's assessment in his memoir, Out of My Later Years: "I live in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity."
• Exercise predicts late-life mental health better than physical health.
In his most recent book, Spiritual Evolution, Vaillant contends that positive emotions such as love, hope, joy, forgiveness, compassion, faith, awe and gratitude help link us to other people, while negative emotions shift focus onto the self, encouraging an all-about-me approach to life.
"Love is the shortest definition of spirituality I know," Vaillant says in Spiritual Evolution. "Both spirituality and love result in conscious feelings of respect, appreciation, acceptance, sympathy, empathy, compassion, involvement, tenderness, and gratitude. . . . To focus on the positive emotions is the best and safest route to spirituality that we are likely to see."
Tom Valeo writes about health matters. Contact him at [email protected]