Happiness is a warm puppy?

14 Nov

On BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme this morning there was a report about an on-going study of the lifetime experiences of 268 men, conducted since 1940 by the Harvard Medical School. When he was probed on the question of how happy the men had been, George Vaillant, the Director of the project, said that for him ‘happiness’ is the wrong word, and ’emotional intelligence, skill at human relationships, joy, connection, resilience’ are far more appropriate. “Happiness is too close to hedonism, or getting lucky,” he added.

I can see the value of all the alternative words which he used, but ruling out the hedonistic element – ruling out pleasure, in other words – seems to me to be adopting an approach that ignores the importance of sensual experience in people’s lives. Epicurus would not have approved.

Professor Vaillant went on to say that establishing close human relationships was a big determinant of life expectancy among the people whom they studied.  Today, only 4 out of the 31 people in the study who had no close relationships are still alive, while more than one third of those who do have intimate relationships are still with us (and must now be in their 80s, I assume). “If you want to be happy and don’t have someone to trade smiles with,” the professor said, “Get yourself a puppy.”  Fair enough. But most people need a bit more than a pet, I feel, if they’re going to enjoy long-term happiness.

Incidentally, they really did use the word MEN on the programme. Did they mean that? Since the people chosen for the study were Harvard sophomores in 1940, I guess there’s a good chance that the subjects were indeed all men.Which makes this a much less valuable study than it might have been if the other half of the human race had been included.

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