Katherine Parker-Magyar donned a cap and gown on May 17 of this year and marched to the Quad with fellow Hobart and William Smith students, soon-to-be graduates. They listened to Carol Browner, Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change in the Obama Administration, who encouraged them to dare to dream of a future with a clean economy, water and air. They also heard Mark D. Gearan, the president of the Colleges, advise the graduates that a life marked by service to others is, statistically and anecdotally, a happy one. “I hope your happiness index takes from Henry David Thoreau’s guidance: ‘Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.'”
In the audience that day was Parker-Magyar’s mother, Liz Parker, executive editor and co-publisher of Recorder Community Newspapers. Recently, Parker wrote about her impression of Gearan’s address, and the impact it had on her as one of, as she described herself, the “gray hairs in the back” of the graduates’ rows of chairs. Parker also looks at research into happiness in her article, the full text of which follows.
Recorder Community Newspapers
So what makes a successful life?
Liz Parker • June 26, 2009
Now is the time of year when graduates are set forth into the world with inspiring words of wisdom and soaring rhetorical insight into the human condition.
It is a commencement of the rest of their lives. Some graduation addresses actually reach those heights, of course, and even others reach beyond the graduates in the front rows to intrigue and capture the imagination of the gray hairs in the back.
That was the case at last month’s Hobart and William Smith Colleges graduation in Geneva, N.Y., where college President Mark Gearan discussed what makes us happy, what is the measure of a successful life.
He referred to the concept of Gross National Happiness, an index originating in the tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan.
Bhutan embarked on such a study in the 1980s to make sure it could achieve economic growth while maintaining good governance, protecting the environment and preserving an ancient culture, Gearan explained.
Numerous books and other studies expound on the subject. Our own U.S. Constitution, Gearan pointed out, cites “certain unalienable rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness…”
Gearan, former deputy chief of staff and director of the Peace Corps in the Clinton administration, cited National Public Radio correspondent Eric Weiner’s book titled, “The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World.”
“The author spent a year traveling and visiting the world’s most and least happy places including Bhutan, of course,” Gearan said. “He looks at the scientific literature on happiness and draws some conclusions on certain cultures and the ingredients for a life happily lived.”
Gearan quoted the book:
“Recent research into happiness or subjective well-being reveals that money does indeed buy happiness. Up to a point. That point, though, is surprisingly low: about $15,000 a year. After that, the link between economic growth and happiness evaporates. Americans are on average three times wealthier than we were half a century ago, yet we are no happier. The same is true of Japan and many other industrialized nations.”
Gearan also referred to Syracuse University economist Arthur Brooks’ book “Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America – and How We Can Get More of It” published during last year’s presidential race.
Brooks’ book, Gearan said, argues politicians overlook happiness, “because they measure what’s easy to measure. They talk about money because money is easier to measure than human thriving. But when people in the exit polls come out they talk about cultural values as why they voted for a particular politician.
“Happy people treat others better than unhappy people do. They are more charitable than unhappy people, have better marriages, are better parents, act with great integrity and are better citizens. Happy people not only work harder than unhappy people, but volunteer more, too – meaning that they increase our nation’s prosperity and strengthen our communities.
“In short, happy citizens are better citizens. Better citizens are vital to making our nation healthy and strong,” Gearan said quoting the book.
“Other research,” Gearan said, “has shown happy people have better health habits, lower blood pressure, stronger immune systems and higher endurance levels.”
A remarkable study has been in search of the answer to what makes a successful life for 72 years at Harvard.
The June edition of “The Atlantic” has a fascinating piece by Joshua Wolf Shenk on the 72-year ongoing study at Harvard. Started in 1937 as a study of healthy well-adjusted Harvard sophomores, it has followed 268 men for more than 70 years through war, marriage, career, divorce, parenthood and old age.
When finished, the study seeks to answer the question: “Is there a formula – some mix of love, work, and psychological adoption – for a good life?” the article starts.
It is a fascinating read.
The article, which includes excerpts from the men’s case studies, sums up some of the study’s findings, identifying “seven major factors that predict healthy aging, both physically and psychologically.’
“Employing mature adaptations was one,” the article states. “The others were education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise and healthy weight.
“Of the 106 Harvard men who had five or six of these factors in their favor at age 50, half ended up at 80 as what (George Vaillant, the project’s co-director) called ‘happy-well’ and only 7.5 percent as sad-sick.’
“Meanwhile,” the article continues, “of the men who had three or fewer of the health factors at age 50, none ended up as ‘happy-well’ at 80. Even if they had been in adequate physical shape at 50, the men who had three or fewer protective factors were three times as likely to be dead at 80 as those with four or more factors.”
So what factors don’t count?
“Vaillant identified some surprises,” Shenk writes. “Cholesterol levels at age 50 have nothing to do with health in old age.”
And in what may be a relief to some teens and young adults, the study shows that “while social ease correlates highly with good psychological adjustment in college and early adulthood, its significance diminishes over time,” the article states.
Likewise, the article paraphrases the study: “Shy, anxious kids tend to do poorly in young adulthood, but by age 70, are just as likely as the outgoing kids to be ‘happy-well’.”
Shenk cites some surprises in the study as well: “Regular exercise in college predicted late-life mental health better than it did physical health.”
And perhaps not surprisingly, “pessimists seemed to suffer physically in comparison with optimists, perhaps because they’re less likely to connect with others or care for themselves.”
And this is where the Harvard study gets into the power of relationships.
“It is social aptitude,” Shenk quotes the study, “not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.
“The men’s relationships at age 47,” he found, “predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable except defenses. Good sibling relationship seem especially powerful: 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger.”
And acknowledging defenses or personal limitations is another lesson.
“Only with patience and tenderness might a person surrender his barbed armor for a softer shield,” Shenk writes. “Perhaps in this, I thought, lies the key to a good life – not rules to follow nor problems to avoid, but an engaged humility, an earnest acceptance of life’s pains and promises.”
So now back to Gearan and to his address to the Hobart and William Smith Colleges graduation class.
“So, this all begs the question I ask on your Commencement Day – what will be your happiness index? How will you measure it? What are the metrics you will employ to determine your well-being?
“You already know how you will measure other indices of your life: net worth, assets, liabilities, degrees attained, number of children, number of marriages, number of homes, cars, boats. But when you’re back on the quad for your 25th or 50th reunion, will you be happy? How will you know?
“The Austrian psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl felt that happiness was really a byproduct, observing, ‘Don’t aim at success. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue… as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself… Happiness must happen… You have to let it happen by not caring about it’.”
Citing the concept of Gross National Happiness, Gearan advised the graduates that a life marked by service to others is, statistically and anecdotally, a happy one.
“I hope your happiness index takes from Henry David Thoreau’s guidance: ‘Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined’.”
The writer is executive editor and co-publisher of Recorder Community Newspapers, publishers of this newspaper. She can be reached at (908) 647-5043 or at firstname.lastname@example.org