What makes Us Happy?

Now that I have children, I have their happiness to think about as well as my own!

Naturally, Felicity and I think a lot about what we want for our boys.  We'd like them to be happy, well-adjusted individuals.  That's the easy part!  The hard part is working out what it means to be happy and well-adjusted.  And figuring out how success and happiness are linked to each other.  Sometimes, I feel we have divergent opinions on this.  I'm quite happy for my boys to be ski-bums if that's what makes them happy.  Felicity tends to think that would be a waste of their potential, and therefore they'd be less likely to be truly happy.  (I could be misrepresenting her position here!)  External markers of success inevitably shape our lives.  Certainly, it's a rare person who cares not at all for what others think of him or her.  And I'm definitely not one of them.

So, a conversation we'd had prompted me to go online yesterday, in search of answers!  I found a New York Times article by David Brooks, written over a year ago, which led me to a beautiful, long article from the June 2009 Atlantic Magazine, written by Joshua Wolf Shenk.  It describes the longitudinal study conducted since the 1930s on a group of Harvard students that included JFK (often called the "Grant Study") and the story of the man who, for the past 42 years, has been leading the study: George Vaillant.  It's a fascinating insight into the complexity of human life, and the impossibility of pinning happiness down to a simple formula.

On the face of it, these men were all the very picture of success.  Indeed, that was the point of the study when it first began: to extract a kind of recipe for success.  That project went by the wayside fairly quickly, as various "successful" men succumbed to alcoholism, mental illness, or somehow lost their way.

Listen to Dr Vaillant share some thoughts from his involvement with the study:

As David Brooks puts it so beautifully, in the NYT article, "There is a complexity to human affairs before which science and analysis simply stands mute."

It confirmed for me the Aristotelean notion that we can't judge a person's happiness until after their death! 

With my boys, all we can do is offer them love, provide them with as many opportunities as we can, let them choose their own path, and then hope for the best!

Incidentally, Aristotle believed that children couldn't be happy!  Listen to Myles Burnyeat, talking to Nigel Warburton on Philosophy Bites, if you want a short introduction to Aristotle's conception of happiness.

He's a cheerful looking chap, isn't he!

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