‘Consuming happiness’ 


Friends make people happy, but happy people find it easier to make friends. And it is that complex set of  human ties that creates the environment of support, good feeling, resilience, trust that make up the matrix of a happy life. 

This finding is backed up by one of the longest of all longitudinal research exercises, the Grant Study, begun in 1938, which has tracked the lives of 268 Harvard students — at that time, Harvard was a male-only college — for more than eighty years, seeking to understand what characteristics — from personality type to intelligence to health, habits and relationships contribute to human flourishing. 

For over thirty years, the project was directed by George Vaillant, whose books Aging Well and Triumphs of Experience have explored this fascinating territory.” 

In an interview published in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” 

Vaillant’s response was, “That the only thing that really matters in life is your relationships to other people.” 

A 2017 summary of the study concluded: “Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives … Those ties protect people from life’s ‘ discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.”

The ‘Nun study’

Given the discontent that we have seen to be inherent in a market-led, sensation-driven, pleasure-seeking approach to happiness, what is  there to be said for a recovery of the older Philosophical and religious tradition that sees happiness in terms of a life well led? 

A powerful piece of evidence is to be found in one of the most famous medical research exercises of recent times, known as the Nun Study. 

Directed by David Snowdon of the University of Kentucky Medical Centre, it studied the health Pattern of some seven hundred nuns of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, with particular reference to Alzheimer’s disease. The nuns were aged between 75 and 107, and what gave the study its fascination and depth was the access the researchers had to their autobiographies, written when they were in their early twenties,  more than half a century earlier,

This particular Order required Novitiates to write a brief account of their lives on entering the order, and the researchers used linguistic analysis to draw a Picture of their Personalities at that early age. 

One of their findings was that the more the early autobiographies expressed positive emotions like gratitude, happiness, hope and love, the more likely the nuns were still to be alive sixty years later. The correlations they discovered were so specific that they were able to predict with 85 per cent accuracy which of the nuns would develop Alzheimer’s and which would not. 

The difference in life expectancy between the thankful and (relatively) thankless was, on average, seven years. Being grateful adds years to your life.

From chapter 4, ‘Consuming happiness’ from the book: –

MORALITY by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

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