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Today the Harvard Grant study was brought up in conversation. It was based on last week’s news article that the most important factor in human happiness and longevity was intimate social relationships. We talk a lot about how to be more fully human, so this was an important piece of scientifically based information. Unbeknownst to the others present, that longitudinal study of the Harvard class of 1939-42 is one of my favorite topics, because it gives real-world statistically valid comparisons of various types of behavioral styles. That study is now nearly complete because almost all of the so-called normal boys being studied have now died, mostly of natural causes. (Although John F. Kennedy was in the study and was assassinated.)

As our conversation progressed I brought up one of the unexpected discoveries found some ten years into the longitudinal study, which was that some of the boys, into their 30s at that time, were having trouble with alcohol. The study began adding these men’s relationship to alcohol to the routine questionnaires given to them every five years. As the decades progressed it became apparent that those men who drank at social gatherings, for social pleasure, weren’t having any problems with alcohol. However, those men who were drinking to ease their stresses in life were having serious problems.

When a person drinks for pleasure at social gatherings, and the alcohol isn’t fun anymore, they stop drinking, but those who were drinking to suppress pain, and found that the drink did help ease their pain, they drank more, and as their pain persisted they drank even more, and then drank more and more. Thus, after years of drinking that way they became alcoholics. It didn’t happen quickly, but eventually it happened to everyone who was drinking to suppress their emotional pain. As their alcoholism progressed they lost their jobs, their wives, their wealth, their self-respect and soon their health and finally their lives. My slogan is “Drink for pleasure, never for pain.” Drinking for pain doesn’t solve the root problems a person is facing and makes the drinker less capable of coping with their problems.

As this conversation was progressing it became apparent that the others were thinking of this study as unrelated to them, and that this whole idea was based on theories that were only relevant to elitist Harvard graduates, the 1%ers, and not to the rest of us.

My problem with this is that the science is in and the results are not being contested, except of course by those with a vested interest in selling alcohol, and yet even so simple an idea is nearly impossible to convert into a willingness to support actual behavior changes. My other ideas about cultivating mature human behavior are more speculative, but clearly a person in an emotionally expansive mood can explore their options, and the same person when in a depressed state has more difficulty in exploring their options. The lesson to be learned from this simple observation is that there are many paths to self-improvement that we can explore when we are feeling good. Thus, when we are feeling good we should not revel in the pleasure, but explore our options for greater maturity.

When feeling good explore your options.

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