Archive for May 2009
Longitudinal studies are rare. And the reason for this is not hard to find. They take time, a lifetime, for example, if you want to determine if X lived a happy life, and on what most of all that happiness was based.
“Croesus,” Solon replies, “I see that thou art wonderfully rich, and art the lord of many nations; but with respect to that whereon thou questionest me, are you the happiest of men, I have no answer to give, until I hear that thou hast closed thy life happily.”
Most of what we say is based not on a lengthened look, either into the past or into the future, but right now, on our look, as penetrating as it may be, (latitudinal) into the present. Our judgment, for example, of Dwight Howard’s 23 points and his truly remarkable 22 rebounds in the Orlando Magic’s victory over the Boston Celtics in Game 6 at Amway Arena last night. For whatever happens in Game 7 will probably push Howard’s rebounding out of our consciousness and into the past.
However, in Howard’s case his feats, and to some extent his entire life, will be recorded by the sports writers and it will be possible with the records at some point to measure the “meaning” of his career, and perhaps even his life, perhaps even whether or not he lived a happy one.
For most of us this is not possible, for the myriad daily happenings of our lives are not recorded and a longitudinal study, or our taking the measure of our lives over time, is just rarely if ever done. And it may very well be that most of us live without knowing how well, or not, we have lived, let alone whether we are happy.
So when we read about a genuine longitudinal study of lives, as the one carried out during the past 72 years by researchers at Harvard following some 268 men who entered college in the late 1930s through war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and finally old age and for many death, we are terribly excited by what we may learn about ourselves through these lives.
For these lives well documented over all these years promise to help us to understand what’s important in our own lives. Things other than the number of rebounds snagged by Dwight Howard in Game Six of the playoffs with the Celtics.
And in fact, sensing the general interest that the study has provoked, the study’s longtime director, George Vaillant, doesn’t hesitate to share with us his conclusion as to what makes them, and us, happy. In an interview in March 2008 Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” He replied that “the only thing that really matters in life are one’s relationships to other people.”
Now just after reading about the study in Joshua Wolf Shenk’s article, What Makes Us Happy, in this month’s Atlantic, I also happened to pick up and read Mark Steyn’s talk, “Live Free or Die,” given at Hillsdale College in April of this year.
According to Steyn our lives ought to be most about freedom, about our staying free, our doing things for ourselves, our not giving up our freedoms to big government, our not relying on government for health, educational, welfare and other services for us and our families.
Steyn’s answer to the question, what makes us happy, would be simply, that we hold onto our freedoms, and, I suppose, over the long term in respect to how we have done in this regard it is in this manner that he would judge our lives. Failed countries and failed civilizations are too often stories of peoples who lost their freedoms, gave them up, through their own inaction.
What struck me as most interesting in all this was the fact that Geroge Vaillant while following the lives of the 268 men in the Harvard study never once seemed to be interested in the amount of freedom, in particular the amount of freedom from government, these men enjoyed in their lives. Why was that?
So is Steyn’s (and New Hampshire’s) “live free or die” only something of the moment? Something like going into battle, not paying one’s taxes, not voting for the unattractive candidates running for public office?
When one looks closely at our lives over the long term, from birth through middle age and all the way to old age and death, does freedom become much less important than say, one’s ties over the years to one’s fellows? From my perspective, now well into old age, I would say yes.
A Scottish economist, Alexander Fraser Tyler, professed this opinion already in 1776:
“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesses from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising them the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over a loose fiscal policy…”.
(from a talk by Christian Michel, Why I am not a Democrat)