(Note: we are dealing with a long chain of technological failures, so this post was prepared on our iPad. Please forgive errors.)
This is the third of a series of groundbreaking studies dealing with aging that we are covering in this blog-the Harvard Grant Study.
I For many decades there has been a study going on of characteristics leading to overall life success of Harvard students. To give you a sense of how long the study has been taking place, President John Kennedy was one of the undergraduates studied, and it is still going on.
The meaning of “overall life success” was borrowed from Freud, who defined it as the ability to love and to work, i.e. to develop stable loving relationships and a productive, satisfying career.
For many years, the head of the Grant Study was George Vaillant and he published “Adaptation to Life”, a very useful book for anyone interested in details on how others have lived happy, fruitful lives.
Vaillant described several adaptive styles that led to success. Here is a list of them:
1. Anticipation: being aware of future challenges and planning how you will avoid being blinded by them.
2. Suppression: After doing what can be done about difficult circumstances, being able to put them aside and direct your attention to things that are in your control.
3. Humor: People who used humor to help deal with stress did better than the humorless.
4. Altruism: Taking the needs of others seriously, and letting them be important to you in the ways your own needs are important.
5. Sublimation: Fulfilling unconscious yet unacceptable urges by putting your energy into doing something that is socially useful and acceptable that fulfills those urges. Two participants in the study illustrated this contrast. Both went hungry in their youth. One of them became determined to never be deprived again. The other sublimated his feelings by working
for the US Department of Agriculture in the area of food aid.
How can you make use of this information?
Vaillant interpreted the studies within a Freudian framework. He saw these adaptive styles as “defense mechanisms”, which are ways we control our anxieties and keep undesirable desires out of our conscious awareness. Normally defense mechanisms are not seen as controllable by the conscious mind. Our purpose in this blog has never been to do psychotherapy,especially not depth therapy,like psychoanalysis,that attempts to uncover thoughts and feelings from the unconscious. Instead,we teach people to change their thoughts and habits,and even environments,to ones that help them do well in life. Looking at the five items in our list above, here are some ways to put some of them to use without venturing into depth psychology.
Anticipation is looking ahead, and planning for ways we might be able to get control of predictable stressors,then using the results of our planning to maximize good outcomes and minimize bad ones.
Try this: Imagine how you would like to be in the future(for example, six months or a year from now). Imagine the obstacles that might get in the way of your reaching your goals.Pick one of the barriers and plan ways to get past it. When opportunities arise to do this again, repeat with another barrier. Continue this until you can clearly imagine a reasonably smooth path to success.
Suppression is allowing yourself to be aware of your feelings without acting on them. An example of useful suppression: The idea that “I’ll cry tomorrow” allows you to be aware of your sadness, but also allows you to do what you need to do until the time is right for expressing the feeling.
A few decades ago, Norman Cousins, had a disease that his doctors could not cure. He decided to cure himself by watching films that made him laugh. He wrote a book about how this worked out, and felt it was quite successful.
The research literature on the healing effects of laughter, or of humor in general, despite having some evidence of such healing effects, does not lead to sound conclusions. However the use of laughter in common experiences lends support to the idea that laughter is beneficial. Laughter can engage us in ways that enable us to put aside painful thoughts, for a time even painful realities. In the meanwhile our resilience resources can replenish us and give us the stamina to settle the situation.
We need more and better research on various aspects of humor before reaching solid conclusions.