delanceyplace.com 7/14/09 - the risk of being loved

In today's excerpt - the risk inherent in positive emotions: observations from the psychiatrist George Vaillant who has long been the chief curator of the Harvard Study of Adult Development one of the longest-running—and probably the most exhaustive—longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history. Begun in 1937 as a study of healthy well-adjusted Harvard sophomores (all male) it has followed its subjects for more than 70 years:

"As Freud was displaced by biological psychiatry and cognitive psychology—and the massive data sets and double-blind trials that became the industry standard—Vaillant's work risked obsolescence. But in the late 1990s, a tide called 'positive psychology' came in, and lifted his boat. Driven by a savvy, brilliant psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania named Martin Seligman, the movement to create a scientific study of the good life has spread wildly through academia and popular culture (dozens of books, a cover story in Time, attention from Oprah, etc.).

"Vaillant became a kind of godfather to the field, and a champion of its message, that psychology can improve ordinary lives, not just treat disease. But in many ways his role in the movement is as provocateur. Last October, I watched him give a lecture to Seligman's graduate students on the power of positive emotions—awe, love, compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, joy, hope and trust (or faith). 'The happiness books say, 'Try happiness. You'll like it a lot more than misery'—which is perfectly true,' he told them. But why, he asked, do people tell psychologists they'd cross the street to avoid someone who had given them a compliment the previous day?

"In fact, Vaillant went on, 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.

"To illustrate his point, he told a story about one of his 'prize' [Harvard] Study men, a doctor and well-loved husband. 'On his 70th birthday,' Vaillant said, 'when he retired from the faculty of medicine, his wife got hold of his patient list and secretly wrote to many of his longest-running patients, 'Would you write a letter of appreciation?' And back came 100 single-spaced, desperately loving letters—often with pictures attached. And she put them in a lovely presentation box covered with Thai silk, and gave it to him.' Eight years later, Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box down from his shelf. 'George, I don't know what you're going to make of this,' the man said as he began to cry, 'but I've never read it.' 'It's very hard,' Vaillant said 'for most of us to tolerate being loved.' "


author:

Joshua Wolf Shenk

title:

'What Makes Us Happy?'

publisher:

The Atlantic

date:

June 2009

pages:

47-48
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