Riding in Airplanes #1: What Makes Us Happy

Dear CF,

In the wake of the Air France disaster, which confirms the quite reasonable conviction that one day airplanes will drop out of the sky just like it always seemed they should, I want to talk about that primitive gut-wrencher, the fear of flying. I’ve spent some time recently talking about anger; you’ve spent some time talking about courage. I’d like, for a moment, to go back to fear. And how we deal with it. And death. And tangentially, you know, happiness.

We’ll begin at the bottom of the ocean, which is where any self-respecting discussion of flight ought to begin, this being a doomed airplane’s final destination as well as the natural habitat of fish and scuba-divers.

My sister just went on her 800th dive. I’m new to scuba-diving culture, but she tells me it’s usual for scuba-divers to dive with a buddy. The Buddy System works thusly: Your buddy keeps tabs on you through frequent eye contact. Communication takes place via a rudimentary set of signs that include “are you okay,” “I’m going up,” and “how much air do you have left?” in addition to “look! a sea turtle” and “shark! shark!” Because you’re underwater and be-bundled and -tubed and near currents that can quickly drive you apart, it’s critical that buddies make frequent eye contact with each other.

You might say that the Buddy System seems an incommensurate answer to the problems of being 40-80 feet underwater, at risk for barotrauma, and in the proximity of (for example) swarms of jellies. And you would be right. My sister, a sensible woman, knows this. Which is lucky because her Buddy, my brother-in-law, is an amiable ditz the moment he’s underwater, off exploring and either forgets or resists confirming that he is indeed okay and that she is too.

She has, as a result, recognized that each time she dives she takes her life into her own two hands, and has serenely concluded that if something happens down there, she’s going to die, and there’s no way she’d rather go.

The same people who came up with the Buddy System wrote the cheerful airplane safety guidelines located in your front seat pocket. Judging from how infrequently those guidelines are read or dramatically reenacted these days aboard commercial airplanes, flight crews have come to more or less the same conclusions as my sister. So have the passengers: Children occupy the exit rows. No one quite remembers whether the air flotation device is the seat cushion or the thing under it. No one minds that the life vests are powered by Slurpee straws. It’s understood that if the oxygen-mask bag doesn’t inflate we’ll fuss a bit, no matter how many times we’ve been assured that oxygen is flowing. We will compare with our neighbors. We will not breathe normally.

All this was proven gloriously wrong by the triumphant evacuation of the U.S. Airways plane that landed in the Hudson River. The glossy triptych isn’t the nonsense we all thought it was—and that we thought it was is proven, in turn, by how the media goggled in stupefaction at the fact that a plane actually managed an emergency landing without liquefying or combusting so that those guidelines could be implemented.

I submit that those guidelines are roughly analogous to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: helpful in that they say “Don’t Panic” and accurate in that, if a long series of highly unlikely events come to pass without anything sinking or exploding, they will help you (for example) slide down the airplane door into the water instead of just jumping on in.

The point, dear friend, is that I fly a lot. And flying is an occasion for stocktaking. Not exactly because I’m afraid—I understand that it’s safe, and I’m not a nervous flyer—but because there’s not much we can do should a Bad Thing happen. It’s a forced passivity; my fate rests entirely in someone else’s hands. Because of this, the window-seat has become, for me, a cramped and neck-twisting window to the soul. The only agency I have pertains to the cockpit within, so I do a quick check to make sure everything’s in proper working order.

I used to enjoy doing this. It was a serious few minutes, but I would locate my peace and feel, like my sister does, that if I’m going to die, I die happy. It was a surprise to discover this was the case—that there were no decisions I really questioned, no radical conflicts between the ethics and the life. Along with this there was a consciousness of brute strength, a conviction I could survive anything  barring explosion and liquefaction. If, for instance, we were to be thrown into some post-apocalyptic future, I would be Darwin’s kind of fit. I’d scrabble and survive.

All of this is no longer so. And because I don’t much care for the results, I’ve abandoned the practice and put the plane on autopilot. This absolves one from many decisions, like (for example) listening to music, playing music, writing or reading anything a bit difficult or cutting through the clouds, turbulence be damned. It’s a fearful existence in which meaning is the ultimate boogeyman.

On a recent trip I picked up a copy of The Atlantic just prior to boarding the plane. I bought it because the cover said WHAT MAKES US HAPPY next to a picture of a young, sweet-looking man impeccably dressed in the preppy garb typical of the 30s and 40s. He’s been caught mid-laugh, and the only sign of something being amiss is his hair, which on the right side (his left) pops up like a wing.

I understood that this purchase was—from the autopilot’s point of view—unadvisable, buckled my seatbelt and took my chances.

The story, which is  luckily available online here, is on a longitudinal study of a group of “normal” healthy Harvard sophomores, male, recruited back in 1937, and their physical and mental well-being over the last 70 years.  It changed hands once, and is now in the hands of George Vaillant, a psychologist who has spent the last 42 years studying these lives. The participants were sent questionnaires, asked to report on their lives, what they were doing, how they felt. They were invited to talk about their opinions on religion, politics, family, everything. All of it was compiled.

Joshua Wolf Shenk, the author of the piece, intersperses descriptions of the different cases in the (rather devastating) second-person with the story of the study and of Vaillant himself, who has dedicated his life to trying to understand, on this basis, what factors predicts happiness and longevity. And who is, in Shenk’s words, “an optimist marinated in tragedy, not just in his life experience, but in his [literary] taste” which includes Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Ibsen and Williams.

When his children were small, Vaillant would read them a poem about a tribe of happy-go-lucky bears, who lived in a kind of Eden until a tribe of mangier, smarter bears came along and enslaved them. “I would weep at this story,” remembers his daughter Anne Vaillant. “Dad thought it was funny, and I think somehow it was helpful to him that I had such feelings about it. There was this sort of, ‘This is the way life is.'”

Shenk characterizes Vaillant’s central question as

not how much or how little trouble these men met, but rather precisely how—and to what effect—they responded to that trouble. His main interpretive lens has been the psychoanalytic metaphor of ‘adaptations,’ or unconscious responses to pain, conflict, or uncertainty. Formalized by Anna Freud on the basis of her father’s work, adaptations (also called ‘defense mechanisms’) are unconscious thoughts and behaviors that you could say either shape or distsort—depending on whether you approve or disapprove—a person’s reality.

Vaillant compares these defense mechanisms to clotting, which can of course, depending on how that clotting happens, “spell our redemption or ruin.” He has a taxonomy of defenses ranging from worst to best. (What follows is basically verbatim from the article, but in list form.)

  • “psychotic” adaptations. Paranoia, hallucinations, etc.
  • “immature” adaptations. Acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, fantasy.
  • “neurotic” defenses. Common in “normal” people. “These include intellectualization (mutating the primal stuff of life into objects of formal thought), dissociation (intense, often brief, removal from one’s feelings), and repression” which can involve “seemingly inexplicable naivete, memory lapse, or failure to acknowledge input from a selected sense organ.”
  • “mature” adaptations: altruism, humor, anticipation (looking ahead and planning for future discomfort), suppression (a conscious decision to postpone attention to an impulse or conflict, to be addressed in good time), and sublimation (finding outlets for feelings, like putting aggression into sport, or lust into courtship).

The subjects of the study vary widely throughout their lives in their deployment of these various modes of defense. “This means that a glimpse of any one moment in a life can be deeply misleading,” Shenk says. Curiously, the best-adjusted subjects early on in the study seem to bifurcate into two classes, those who really were well-adjusted and those who were avoiding conflict:

A man at 20 who appears the model of altruism may turn out to be a kind of emotional prodigy—or he may be ducking the kind of engagement with reality that his peers are both moving toward and defending against. And, on the other extreme, a man at 20 who appears impossibly wounded may turn out to be gestating toward maturity.

The case studies are real in a way that magazine profiles never quite manage to be, precisely because they only ever manage to reflect a single moment or get mired in legend.

The information obtained, too, seems almost miraculous—and sometimes more accurate than the subjects themselves can know; when confronted with evidence of their earlier opinions or habits, some gently suggested that Vaillant had mixed up their files.

The process is disconcertingly revealing. Flipping through channels the other night I came across a movie starring J. Lo in which a boy is watching a horse in a strangely clinical dungeon. He runs up and shoves her out of the way just as a set of super-sharp guillotines come down and perfectly slice and preserve the horse in still-beating sections. (I used to do something like this with rhesus macaque brains—slice them up on a microplane and study them.)

This is, in one sense, what Vaillant is doing, only in time. And it’s not surprising, from this pretty clinical angle, that he seems relieved whenever another subject dies. “I finally know what happened to him,” he says. The file is, in a word, complete. The data can be processed. The horse is no more.

The article is a beautiful mix of slices and wholes, more hauntingly invasive than you realize as you watch Shenk do to Vaillant what Vaillant does to all these other men: gently extrapolate biographical data. Just like the men who accuse him of mixing up their files, Vaillant misreports his own life history. Shenk’s point is that our stories about ourselves are riddled with inconsistencies. Even Vaillant, the godfather of happiness studies, is finally in the same metaphysical quandary as the anthropologist: trying to account for humanity as a human. And he is not really at peace with it all. And he is not quite happy. Not that we should necessarily expect our scholars to be enlightened; knowing the problem is of remarkably little help in solving it. Still: for someone whose name is a luxuriantly anagram of valiant, he seems to score rather poorly on the metric he identifies as the greatest key to happiness. Asked what he’d learned from the Grant Study: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

There are seven other factors that can help predict whether one will end up “happy-well” or “sad-sick.” I won’t go into them here. Nor will I go into the individual case studies, the sheer volume of which (even excerpted!) remind me of Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex, allegedly the most horrible torture device to which a sentient being can be subjected. “When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little mark, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, “You are here.”

I lied. I’ll go into one, because I said I would talk about fear and happiness. Here’s what Vaillant (via Shenk) has to say about both:

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 and 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.”

Meanwhile, on the airplane, the autopilot panicked and the aircraft spun merrily on its way out of the sky and into the benthic deeps. A little like this post, I think. The flight attendant offered him peanuts. He blew his nose, rubbed his eyes and accepted.



(The second installment of the Riding in Airplanes series, “On With the Story (And Full of Hot Air),” is here.)

2 Responses to Riding in Airplanes #1: What Makes Us Happy

  1. Pingback: Glory Be « Millicent and Carla Fran

  2. Pingback: Dreams Help You Mind-Read, Science Says « Millicent and Carla Fran

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