Friday, May 15, 2009

Positive emotions and risk

The June 2009 Atlantic has a long piece by Joshua Wolf Shenk, "What Makes Us Happy?" Shenk looks at the Grant Study, a longitudinal study (begun in 1937) of 268 Harvard men, and talks with George Vaillant, professor at Harvard Medical School and psychiatrist. Vaillant is the longtime director of the study, associated with it for more than forty years.

I find the following passage especially resonant. Shenk is recounting Vaillant's explanation to a group of graduate students of why "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" Grant 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."

comments: 8

JuliaR said...

Thanks for posting that link. I am going to go read it again - it was quite long, and full of interesting stuff.

I am just about finished "The English Patient". Have you read it? I wonder what you think of it.

Michael Leddy said...

Julia, you're welcome. The magazine came in the mail today — there's something odd about reading online for free before getting the thing in print.

I've never read The English Patient. What did you think of it?

JuliaR said...

I liked it. I am surprised because I never expect to like novels that get hyped, or novels that are excessively "literary" (give me a good Stephen King any day). It had a leisurely pace to the writing but it wasn't drawn out and over-done. I liked the story lines - they were interesting - and the characters were well drawn. There were some nice insights into human nature. And I read it quickly. If it takes me forever to turn a page and then I have to go back and re-read stuff, I will give up on a book.

I also recently read Ondaatje's "Anil's Ghost" and found it very interesting, especially in light of the Sri Lankan war and the protests we've been having up here. And the writing was excellent.

I always like to "discover" authors, find that I like them, and then read all their stuff.

[Ha! the wiggly word is "woomento"!]

Michael Leddy said...

"If it takes me forever to turn a page and then I have to go back and re-read stuff, I will give up on a book."

That's how I make my living. : ) (The re-reading part.)

JuliaR said...

Ha1 Good point. But of course, I am talking about reading merely for pleasure. On the other hand, it occurs to me that I have re-read entire books for pleasure, simply because I love the story AND the way it is written. But that's different from re-reading because you didn't understand something because it was poorly written. Now, if I'd written my previous remarks properly, I wouldn't feel I have to explain myself with subsequent blog comments. sigh.

Michael Leddy said...

Julia, I was just kidding. (Note the smiley.) But I do find myself re-reading even the most straightforward stuff.

Katherine said...

Thank you for posting this! It's made me less mysterious to myself!

Michael Leddy said...

Same here. You're welcome, Katherine.