Squeezing the Lemon

Psychology alone can't teach us how to get the most out of life

In 1937, in an attempt to discover the variables predicting happiness, researchers decided to track 268 Harvard sophomores over the course of their lives. Subjects were recommended on the basis of their “normality”; as study supervisor Dr. Arlie Bock explained to The Crimson in 1942, “To alleviate the disharmony of the world at large, we must start with the successful man rather than the unsuccessful, frustrated, or ill man.” Those chosen were Harvard men in the old sense: hale, well-adjusted sorts who kept a copy of A Shropshire Lad in their back pockets and wore blazers to lunch. For the next 72 years, through mental surveys and periodic physical checkups, their every move would be documented.

The archived results of this study, published for the first time in the June issue of The Atlantic, are somewhat underwhelming. Education, marriage, moderate alcohol intake, and exercise are fairly reliable predictors of happiness; so are certain “mature adaptations” taken in responding to challenges, such as maintaining a sense of humor and channeling aggressive feelings into more healthful channels like athletics. As for offering any definitive answer as to how to live the good life, no convenient elixir is forthcoming. That the study fell short of the bright-eyed ideals with which it commenced, however, is only to be expected—psychology may be able to trace the outer manifestations of human action, but it can never tell us through scientific analysis alone how to lead the good life.

That hasn’t stopped it from trying. By now, the phenomenon of “positive psychology” has become a fairly tired trope. But when it burst onto the scene in the late ’90s, it seemed like something entirely new, poised to provide innovative answers to the really big questions. With its fusion of self-help and brain science, it was perfectly calculated to appeal to soul-searching undergrads desirous of something a touch more quantitative than Nietzsche. A lecture course taught by Tal Ben-Shahar on “how to get happy” quickly became the most popular class at Harvard, with students carefully copying down chestnuts like “Give yourself permission to be human” from the blackboard. Over 200 similarly themed courses likewise sprouted up in universities across the United States, drawing consistently large audiences. Nor was this a fad, like phone-booth-stuffing or streaking, for bored college kids alone. Baby boomers—Oprah not excluded—consumed the newest books on happiness research as fast as publishers could roll them out, sating the metaphysical void once filled by “The Tao of Physics.”

The very popularity of this “science of happiness,” though, suggests that its appeal didn’t lie in the science alone. Pure data sets rarely inspire anyone to grand existential epiphanies. (Does anybody actually read the American Journal of Psychology for fun?) The recent offerings instead glide seamlessly from real cognitive scientific results into life prescriptions of the kind traditionally proffered by fields like religion and literature. The current overseer of the Grant Study results, George Vaillant, himself studied not psychology but history and literature when he was at Harvard; indeed, it may be the literary quality of many psychological findings that makes them go down so smooth for a meaning-hungry public. In my tutorial this year, Freud was sandwiched as a social thinker between Durkheim and Beauvoir—but really, my section leader told us, the Germans read him as poetry.

If meaning is poetry, then science must be mere prose. But where does that leave us? With my own sophomore year winding to a close, I think of the infinite possibility those Harvard men must have felt, believing that they were contributing to making the world a better place. To deny the Grant Study its ambitious objective to pinpoint the causes of happiness has a whiff of the wet blanket about it. But there’s something even more miserable about thinking that our happiness can be defined by the jobs we choose, or what we eat for breakfast, or how many miles we run each week. Freud himself pointed out that the only thing normal is pathology, which makes applying a bell-curve-style prescription for joy more than a little reductionist. Even if all the indicators in our lives point to success, a craving for something indefinable may persist. Aristotle, for instance, thought that happiness was found in living well, and living well meant living with virtue—a distinction that the Grant would elide.

Perhaps this is the most important lesson of the study: the realization of just how elusive the elements that constitute a happy life really are. In one of his books, Vaillant writes of his subjects that “Their lives were too human for science, too beautiful for numbers, too sad for diagnosis and too immortal for bound journals.” It’s an oddly elegiac comment for a supposedly objective psychologist. Vaillant was especially affected by one of his patients, Case No. 47, who wrote that happiness for him was being able to say on one’s deathbed that “I sure squeezed that lemon!” An unscientific observation, no doubt, but none the less true for that.

Jessica A. Sequeira ’11, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House.