Joy and woe are woven fine. -William Blake
For 72 years, researchers at Harvard have been conducting one of the longest-running longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history.
The study details 268 men who entered Harvard in the late 1930s and periodically follows them throughout their life in an effort to "offer profound insight into the human condition" and examine the possibility of a formula for a "good life."
A journalist has recently gained first-time access to the study's archives and reported its fascinating findings here.
This in-depth article captured me--spellbound--through its case study vignettes and in-depth looks at the complexities of the human experience.
George Vaillant, the study's longtime director, focused primarily "not on how much or how little trouble these men met, but rather precisely how--and to what effect--they responded to that trouble"--including unconscious responses to pain, conflict, or uncertainty (dubbed by Vaillant and his team "adaptations") that either shape or distort a person's reality.
But most captivating to me was Vaillant's findings regarding the power of relationships. “It is social aptitude,” he writes, “not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.” And later, "...the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”
This is by no means an earth-shattering finding but I find it intrinsically hopeful. For how different our concerns would be in our day to day if we really believed this to be true.
Yet, Vaillant makes no qualms that this desire to live life in relation does not come without risk and in fact, may make our lives more uncomfortable than lives lived in insulated solitude:
"...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."
Again, not exactly new news. But Vaillant's explanation that follows seemed full of fresh insight into the true risk of connection and ultimately, the underlying difficulty so many of us have with accepting love:
[Vaillant] 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.”
So, struggle on, friends. It is worth it. And even though it hurts sometimes, don't let the panic bring you down.