well-being

Aging Well

Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study

"At a time when many people around the world are living into their tenth decade, the longest longitudinal study of human development ever undertaken offers some welcome news for the new old age: our lives continue to evolve in our later years, and often become more fulfilling than before.

Begun in 1938, the Grant Study of Adult Development charted the physical and emotional health of over 200 men, starting with their undergraduate days. The now-classic Adaptation to Lifereported on the men’s lives up to age 55 and helped us understand adult maturation. Now George Vaillant follows the men into their nineties, documenting for the first time what it is like to flourish far beyond conventional retirement.

Reporting on all aspects of male life, including relationships, politics and religion, coping strategies, and alcohol use (its abuse being by far the greatest disruptor of health and happiness for the study’s subjects), Triumphs of Experience shares a number of surprising findings. For example, the people who do well in old age did not necessarily do so well in midlife, and vice versa. While the study confirms that recovery from a lousy childhood is possible, memories of a happy childhood are a lifelong source of strength. Marriages bring much more contentment after age 70, and physical aging after 80 is determined less by heredity than by habits formed prior to age 50. The credit for growing old with grace and vitality, it seems, goes more to ourselves than to our stellar genetic makeup."

We Can Free Ourselves

Excerpt from "What Does Science Teach Us About Well-Being?" by Richard J. Davidson, Huffington Post, May 10, 2013:

Equanimity and generosity both contribute to well-being and are associated with distinct patterns of brain and bodily activity.

The Dalai Lama has frequently urged us to be kind toward others and has suggested that kindness is a direct route to happiness. Modern research has borne this out and indicates that kindness and compassion toward others is associated with peripheral biological (i.e., biology below the neck) changes that are salubrious.

Equanimity can be cultivated through simple contemplative practices and is associated with being attentive to the present moment and not getting lost in worrying about the future and ruminating about the past.

Modern research indicates that the average adult American spends nearly 50% of his waking life mind wanderingnot paying attention to what he is actually doing. By learning to remain aware of the present moment, we can free ourselves from being slaves to the past and future. This in and of itself can powerfully facilitate well-being and reduce suffering.

Read the entire essay...


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What Young People Really Need to Hear about What Lies Ahead

The below essay was adaptated from Charles Wheelan's new book, 10½ Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said, and was posted on the The Wall Street Journal site, April 30, 2012 (Thanks, Liz!):

Class of 2012,

I became sick of commencement speeches at about your age. My first job out of college was writing speeches for the governor of Maine. Every spring, I would offer extraordinary tidbits of wisdom to 22-year-olds—which was quite a feat given that I was 23 at the time. In the decades since, I've spent most of my career teaching economics and public policy. In particular, I've studied happiness and well-being, about which we now know a great deal. And I've found that the saccharine and over-optimistic words of the typical commencement address hold few of the lessons young people really need to hear about what lies ahead. Here, then, is what I wish someone had told the Class of 1988:

1. Your time in fraternity basements was well spent.

The same goes for the time you spent playing intramural sports, working on the school newspaper or just hanging with friends. Research tells us that one of the most important causal factors associated with happiness and well-being is your meaningful connections with other human beings. Look around today. Certainly one benchmark of your postgraduation success should be how many of these people are still your close friends in 10 or 20 years.

2. Some of your worst days lie ahead. Graduation is a happy day. But my job is to tell you that if you are going to do anything worthwhile, you will face periods of grinding self-doubt and failure. Be prepared to work through them. I'll spare you my personal details, other than to say that one year after college graduation I had no job, less than $500 in assets, and I was living with an elderly retired couple. The only difference between when I graduated and today is that now no one can afford to retire.

3. Don't make the world worse. I know that I'm supposed to tell you to aspire to great things. But I'm going to lower the bar here: Just don't use your prodigious talents to mess things up. Too many smart people are doing that already. And if you really want to cause social mayhem, it helps to have an Ivy League degree. You are smart and motivated and creative. Everyone will tell you that you can change the world. They are right, but remember that "changing the world" also can include things like skirting financial regulations and selling unhealthy foods to increasingly obese children. I am not asking you to cure cancer. I am just asking you not to spread it.

4. Marry someone smarter than you are. When I was getting a Ph.D., my wife Leah had a steady income. When she wanted to start a software company, I had a job with health benefits. (To clarify, having a "spouse with benefits" is different from having a "friend with benefits.") You will do better in life if you have a second economic oar in the water. I also want to alert you to the fact that commencement is like shooting smart fish in a barrel. The Phi Beta Kappa members will have pink-and-blue ribbons on their gowns. The summa cum laude graduates have their names printed in the program. Seize the opportunity!

5. Help stop the Little League arms race. Kids' sports are becoming ridiculously structured and competitive. What happened to playing baseball because it's fun? We are systematically creating races out of things that ought to be a journey. We know that success isn't about simply running faster than everyone else in some predetermined direction. Yet the message we are sending from birth is that if you don't make the traveling soccer team or get into the "right" school, then you will somehow finish life with fewer points than everyone else. That's not right. You'll never read the following obituary: "Bob Smith died yesterday at the age of 74. He finished life in 186th place."

6. Read obituaries. They are just like biographies, only shorter. They remind us that interesting, successful people rarely lead orderly, linear lives. [Portraits of Grief, The New York Times]

7. Your parents don't want what is best for you. They want what is good for you, which isn't always the same thing. There is a natural instinct to protect our children from risk and discomfort, and therefore to urge safe choices. Theodore Roosevelt—soldier, explorer, president—once remarked, "It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed." Great quote, but I am willing to bet that Teddy's mother wanted him to be a doctor or a lawyer.

8. Don't model your life after a circus animal. Performing animals do tricks because their trainers throw them peanuts or small fish for doing so. You should aspire to do better. You will be a friend, a parent, a coach, an employee—and so on. But only in your job will you be explicitly evaluated and rewarded for your performance. Don't let your life decisions be distorted by the fact that your boss is the only one tossing you peanuts. If you leave a work task undone in order to meet a friend for dinner, then you are "shirking" your work. But it's also true that if you cancel dinner to finish your work, then you are shirking your friendship. That's just not how we usually think of it.

9. It's all borrowed time. You shouldn't take anything for granted, not even tomorrow. I offer you the "hit by a bus" rule. Would I regret spending my life this way if I were to get hit by a bus next week or next year? And the important corollary: Does this path lead to a life I will be happy with and proud of in 10 or 20 years if I don't get hit by a bus.

10. Don't try to be great. Being great involves luck and other circumstances beyond your control. The less you think about being great, the more likely it is to happen. And if it doesn't, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being solid.

Good luck and congratulations.

Once You've Seen

“Virtually all the world’s ills boil down to mindlessness. [Mindfulness] is not something you have to strain to do, it’s like those optical illusion brain teasers. Once you’ve seen there is another perspective, you can never not see that there’s another point of view.”

~ Ellen Langer, from "The Mindfulness Chronicles," by Cara Feinberg, Harvard Magazine, Sep/Oct 2010

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To Increase Flourishing

From Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being by Martin Seligman:

When I started my work in Positive Psychology, my original view was closest to Aristotle’s—that everything we do is done in order to make us happy—but I actually detest the word happiness, which is so overused that it has become almost meaningless. It is an unworkable term for science, or for any practical goal such as education, therapy, public policy, or just changing your personal life. Moreover, the modern ear immediately hears “happy” to mean buoyant mood, merriment, good cheer, and smiling. “Happiness” historically is not closely tied to such hedonics—feeling cheerful or merry is a far cry from what Thomas Jefferson declared that we have the right to pursue—and it is an even further cry from my intentions for a positive psychology.

To understand what “happiness” is really about, the first step is to dissolve “happiness” into more workable terms. When I wrote Authentic Happiness a decade ago, I thought that happiness could be analyzed into three different elements that we choose for their own sakes: positive emotion, engagement, and meaning. Positive emotion refers to what we feel: pleasure, rapture, ecstasy, warmth, comfort, and other such emotions that contribute to the “pleasant life.” Engagement is about flow: being one with the music, time stopping, and the loss of self-consciousness during an absorbing activity, experiences which contribute to the “engaged life.” The third element is meaning. I go into flow while playing bridge, but after a long tournament, when I look in the mirror, I worry that I am fidgeting until I die. Human beings, ineluctably, want the “meaningful life”: belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than you are. Happiness and life satisfaction, I thought, could be increased by building positive emotion, engagement, and a sense of meaning in life.

This is not enough.

I no longer think that positive psychology is about happiness, or about a quest for increasing life satisfaction through positive emotion, engagement, and meaning. It turns out that how much life satisfaction people report is itself determined by how good we feel at the very moment we are asked the question. Averaged over many people, the mood you are in determines more than 70 percent of how much life satisfaction you report. If positive psychology is to be more than a “happiology” of cheerful mood, we need to shift our focus to well-being. I believe the gold standard for measuring well-being is flourishing, and that the goal of positive psychology is to increase flourishing. Flourishing rests on five pillars, each of which we value for its own sake, not merely as a means to some other end. Positive emotion, engagement, and meaning are three of the pillars, but they cannot do the “heavy lifting” of supporting human flourishing by themselves.