“Glass Half Empty” Worldview Easier in the Short Term

May 26, 2009

Happy kidIn an attempt to nail down what psychological aspects factor into "the successful life," researchers have been following 268 Harvard students from the 1940s until now, conducting extensive physical and psychological tests each year.

In a lengthy but fascinating piece, The Atlantic reports on what's known as the Grant Study and its current lead, Dr. George Vaillant. These days Vaillant's speeches about the study's findings focus on the effect of positive emotions on well-being. It's no surprise that love, compassion, gratitude, hope, trust, faith, and forgiveness make us happier people who live longer and healthier lives. Still, negative emotions, like anger, sadness, and distrust can be more attractive psychologically in the short term. Vaillant explains:

Positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs—protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections—but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.

Of course the Grant Study is rife with problems, not the least of which that it was limited to males who graduated from Harvard, and that at one point it was funded by Philip Morris, which led to questions about what the participants' cigarette brand preferences were. Still, this story is worth a read, with full hope that it will lead to more long-term studies that are more inclusive and more fully and consistently funded. (Interestingly, John F. Kennedy was one of the Grant Study men, but his records have been sealed until 2040.) What Makes Us Happy? [The Atlantic via Grazing Life]

It’s a wonderful study – I love its outrageous ambitiousness: We’re going to do a study that determines what makes a good life, and we’re going to follow a group of people for almost all their lives to do it, no matter how long they live. Now that’s science!

One of the most interesting elements of the study was that personal connections are key to long life. Bad news for us childless introverts. I would love to see a study that looks at whether social media activity makes us healthier? Does our biochemistry interpret social media connectivity as authentic?

Another interesting element is the diversity of particpants. True, they were all Harvard students, all men, of a particular time and place — but their lives were so different afterwards.

Mitch Wagner [+7]
May 26 09 at 11:14 am

Thanks, Gina. That was a terrific, timely read.

drmelho [+28]
May 27 09 at 8:28 pm

An Optimist says the glass is half full
A Pessimist says the glass is half empty
An Engineer says the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.

Fred West
Jun 3 09 at 8:40 am

We may talk about the glass, when we really care about the water, since one can’t drink the glass.

Chui Tey
Jun 18 09 at 2:31 pm

Comments are closed. Thanks for reading!