One blogger’s personal bridge to nowhere


Okay, so there are some interesting things to learn about in ponder in this month’s Atlantic cover story, about a 72-year longitudinal study of — well, of what, really?  Of the life trajectories of a group of white male Harvard students from before World War II.  What this can tell us about the nature of happiness, the “good life,” or “normality,” is just a tad debatable, but surely that’s not what the piece’s author, Joshua Wolf Shenk, or the study’s lead psychologist, George Vaillant are going for.  Right?

Vaillant brings a healthy dose of subtlety to a field that sometimes seems to glide past it. The bookstore shelves are lined with titles that have an almost messianic tone, as in Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. But what does it mean, really, to be happier?

Why I don’t just consult this serious, interesting article, then — titled, uh, “What Makes Us Happy? Friends Matter, Cholesterol Doesn’t: Lessons From an Amazing 72-year study” — to find out?  I just need to make my way to the nearest bookstore shelf and open my copy of the, um…Atlantic.

Hypocritical marketing bombast aside, there’s a lot to think about and critique in the article and the study.  Aside from the point I already alluded to — how much can you learn about happiness from studying elite white males who attended Harvard? — the only one I’ll blog about is Shenk’s disconcerting failure to discuss any sort of Heisenberg Principle effect (observation of a phenomenon changes the phenomenon itself).  The participants in the study were kept very much aware that they were participants in a study on happiness; they even admitted that they “saw themselves as part of an elite club.”  They discussed the study with the psychologists who interviewed them, they thought about it in an assuredly meta way, and I’m certain they were aware how their responses were affecting the findings of the study.  Vaillant even sent a draft of his conclusions to one of the study participants.

I’m not saying that this sort of interference could possibly be avoided, or even that it disrupted the study’s goals and outcomes.  It’s just something worth considering, and certainly worth discussing in the article.

May 20, 2009 - Posted by | media | , ,

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