Family + friends + faith equals …

atlantichappinessOne of the best things about making a 9-hour flight on an airliner is that it gives you enough time to read an issue of Atlantic Monthly. Thus, on the way to Kiev, I finally got to read the stunning “What Makes Us Happy?” cover story by Joshua Wolf Shenk.

The subtitle to that headline is an important one, seeing has how it has to lure the reader into consuming a 11,526-word piece of magazine journalism: “Friends matter. Cholesterol doesn’t. Lessons from an amazing 72-year study.”

I called the article stunning, not so much in what it reveals, but how it reveals it. You want to read this article. Trust me.

Yet, at the same time, there is a giant, gaping hole in the middle of the piece — literally a hole in the soul. I’m going to try to write a short post about this that will encourage you to wade into this long, long article about the Harvard Study of Adult Development. Here’s the crucial information that gets us rolling:

The project is one of the longest-running — and probably the most exhaustive — longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history. Begun in 1937 as a study of healthy, well-adjusted Harvard sophomores (all male), it has followed its subjects for more than 70 years.

From their days of bull sessions in Cambridge to their active duty in World War II, through marriages and divorces, professional advancement and collapse — and now well into retirement — the men have submitted to regular medical exams, taken psychological tests, returned questionnaires, and sat for interviews. The files holding the data are as thick as unabridged dictionaries. They sit in a wall of locked cabinets in an office suite behind Fenway Park in Boston, in a plain room with beige carpeting and fluorescent lights that is littered with the detritus of many decades of social-scientific inquiry: a pile of enormous spreadsheet data books; a 1970s-era typewriter; a Macintosh PowerBook, circa 1993. All that’s missing are the IBM punch cards used to analyze the data in the early days.

For 42 years, the psychiatrist George Vaillant has been the chief curator of these lives, the chief investigator of their experiences, and the chief analyst of their lessons. His own life has been so woven into the study — and the study has become such a creature of his mind — that neither can be understood without the other.

Some of the anonymous men involved in the study have openly discussed their participation, such as former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. Study leaders have also stated that a young Harvard man named John F. Kennedy was another subject whose life was studied until his untimely death.

The article is built around italicized excerpts from the case-study files, offering insights into these anonymous men worthy of fine fiction. It is also clear that, in the end, one of the goals of this article goals is to find out, well, if Vaillant is himself a happy, healthy and fulfilled man. I will not reveal anything about the plot of that drama.

marriagehandsIt’s clear that stability and fidelity are crucial, especially in terms of family and friendships. It really, really helps to have a solid, happy marriage. And did I mention fidelity? That seems to be a crucial factor linked to mental and physical health, which is interesting for a study of men who came of age just ahead of the Sexual Revolution (or who wrestled with mid-life pains in the midst of that moral earthquake).

But wait. Might there be another crucial happiness factor, producing a trinity of family, friendships and, well, faith? The article does offer this:

… (H)appiness scientists have come up with all kinds of straightforward, and actionable, findings: that money does little to make us happier once our basic needs are met; that marriage and faith lead to happiness (or it could be that happy people are more likely to be married and spiritual); that temperamental “set points” for happiness — a predisposition to stay at a certain level of happiness — account for a large, but not overwhelming, percentage of our well-being. (Fifty percent, says Sonja Lyubomirsky in The How of Happiness. Circumstances account for 10 percent, and the other 40 percent is within our control.) But why do countries with the highest self-reports of subjective well-being also yield the most suicides? How is it that children are often found to be a source of “negative affect” (sadness, anger) — yet people identify children as their greatest source of pleasure?

So marriage and faith lead to happiness? They are crucial factors? What if those factors are turned upside down? Does the study reveal anything else about the faith factor?


At least, this article does not contain another word of substance on that issue, other than a few references to church attendance. If you are looking for the role of faith and spirituality in human happiness, this is not the article for you.

I really, really miss Michael Kelly.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Mark Ruzon

    Does the study reveal anything else about the faith factor?


    Not another word.

    Well, to be fair there are a couple of references to church attendance, but the point is true.

    I can’t even tell if Vaillant et al. ignored questions of spirituality or whether Wolf Shenk ignored reporting about them, but it seems very strange to pay so much attention to the happiness, and to say that relationships are a major contributor to happiness, without considering a person’s relationship to God.

  • tmatt


    Thanks for that correction. I will slightly amend the text.

  • George Vaillant

    Shenk neglected to note that My latest book “Spiritual Evolution: We are hardwired for Faith, Hope and Love bears directly on your interest
    Best Regards
    George Vaillant

  • Matt

    A fascinating article, and well worth the read.

    One of the weaknesses of this longitudinal study is that it is limited to males who were at Harvard when the study began. This is not (and does not attempt to be) a representative sample of American adults.

    The men in the study are disproportionately from the mid and upper classes, from the Northeast U.S., and from families in the economic and intellectual elite. In the 20th century, faith and church often played a minimal role in this culture.

    I’m sure there are exceptions to this stereotype, but I would guess that the men in the study were mostly nominal, mainline, theologically liberal protestants (or, like JFK, a nominal, liberal Catholic)who claimed membership in a church that had no strong influence on their beliefs.

    It would be interesting to see a similar study that included more people of strong faith, to study the impact that had on their happiness.

  • Mickey

    As one who has subscribed to The Atlantic for the past 30 years, I wholeheartedly agree with your last statement.

  • Maureen

    So there’s God and Man at Yale, and Happiness and Man at Harvard. :)