That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.

–Dr. George Vaillant, Psychiatrist
Harvard Study of Adult Development

"What Makes Us Happy"

What Makes Us Happy?, in the June, 2009, issue of the Atlantic has attracted a lot of attention. It is an interesting story, or collection of anecdotes, but does it provide any useful guidance for CEOs or their executive coaches?

Vaillant sorts people according to theiradaptations, or unconscious responses to pain, conflict, or uncertainty. … (also called defense mechanisms)”

Vaillant’s taxonomy ranks defenses from worst to best, in four categories.

  • Psychotic
    • paranoia,
    • hallucination, or
    • megalomania
  • Immature — impede intimacy
    • acting out,
    • passive aggression,
    • hypochondria,
    • projection, and
    • fantasy
  • Neurotic –common in “normal” people.
    • intellectualization
      • mutating the primal stuff of life into objects of formal thought
    • dissociation
      • intense, often brief, removal from one’s feelings
    • repression
      • naïveté,
      • memory lapse, or
      • failure to acknowledge input
  • Healthiest, or “mature,”
    • altruism,
    • humor,
    • anticipation
      • looking ahead and planning for future discomfort
    • suppression
      • decision to postpone attention to an impulse or conflict
    • sublimation
      • finding outlets for feelings, like putting aggression into sport, or lust into courtship

I suggest taking this neat list with many grains of salt, not the least of which is this quote from Vaillant’s oldest friend, the psychiatrist James Barrett Jr., “I would call George someone who has problems with intimacy.” I find the list overly Freudian, judgmental, and rigid. I consider the work of Werner Erhard much more useful, liberating, and likely to lead to satisfaction.



In 1946, for example, 34 percent of the Grant Study men who had served in World War II reported having come under enemy fire, and 25 percent said they had killed an enemy. In 1988, the first number climbed to 40 percent-and the second fell to about 14 percent.

“As is well known,” Vaillant concluded, “with the passage of years, old wars become more adventurous and less dangerous.”



Distortions can clearly serve a protective function. In a test involving a set of pictures, older people tend to remember fewer distressing images (like snakes) and more pleasant ones (like Ferris wheels) than younger people.


–Joshua Wolf Shenk
What Makes Us Happy?
The Atlantic Monthly