The study of a lifetime

It is not often that articles on psychology studies are described as beautiful, but a piece in The Atlantic on the Harvard Study of Adult Development is quite sublime.

The project has followed two groups of men for almost seventy years, tracking physical and emotional health, opinions and attitudes, successes and failures, all in the hope of understanding what makes us happy.

It weaves the staccato train of numerical data with reflections and insights from the men themselves to attempt the impossible – it hopes to record lives.

From their brash early adulthood to their deaths or dotage the stories are brief but profound, sometimes tragic, sometimes joyful, sometimes mundane.

The study itself has generated some remarkable findings, such as the massive impact of relationships, the fading long-term effects of childhood experiences, or the role of defences in managing emotional well-being, but the piece is as much about the life of the project as its conclusions.

It serves as a meditation on the tension between meaning and measurement when trying to understand the individual, and on the potentially futile attempt to extrapolate an experience of a generation to a world of other times, people and places.

But the article also about psychiatrist George Valliant, who has been coordinating the study for over 40 years, and whose life is intricately woven into the project.

The ending of the article is both surprising and poignant, because it questions what we can truly learn from the lives of others.

Link to Atlantic article ‘What Makes Us Happy?’

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