Mysteries of life

by Henry on May 14, 2009

David Brooks ponders the human condition

In the late 1930s, a group of 268 promising young men, including John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradlee, entered Harvard College. By any normal measure, they had it made. … And yet the categories of journalism and the stereotypes of normal conversation are paltry when it comes to predicting a life course. Their lives played out in ways that would defy any imagination save Dostoyevsky’s … The men were the subject of one of the century’s most fascinating longitudinal studies. They were selected when they were sophomores, and they have been probed, poked and measured ever since. … captured … in an essay called “What Makes Us Happy?” by Joshua Wolf Shenk in the forthcoming issue of The Atlantic. … But it’s the baffling variety of their lives that strikes one the most. It is as if we all contain a multitude of characters and patterns of behavior, and these characters and patterns are bidden by cues we don’t even hear … There is a complexity to human affairs before which science and analysis simply stands mute.

Not so fast. That there are things about human lives – who succeeds, who fails, who dies early, who dies late, who is happy, who is sad – which don’t yield to social scientific analysis, nor yet the stereotypes of normal conversation, is inarguably true. But people’s lives are also, inarguably, greatly affected by the structural conditions that they are born into. And the essay that Brooks likes not only affirms the importance of structures like race and class, but points to the very clear limits of the Harvard study.

Vaillant also dramatically expanded his scope by taking over a defunct study of juvenile delinquents in inner-city Boston, run by the criminologists Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck. Launched in 1939, the study had a control group of nondelinquent boys who grew up in similar circumstances—children of poor, mostly foreign-born parents, about half of whom lived in a home without a tub or a shower. … Vaillant has largely played down the distinctions among the samples. For example, while he allows that, in mortality rates, the inner-city men at age 68 to 70 resembled the Terman and Harvard cohorts at 78 to 80, he says that most of the difference can be explained by less education, more obesity, and greater abuse of alcohol and cigarettes. “When these four variables were controlled,” he writes, “their much lower parental social class, IQ, and current income were not important.” But of course those are awfully significant variables to “control.” Vaillant points out that at age 70, the inner-city men who graduated from college were just as healthy as the Harvard men. But only 29 Glueck men did finish college—about 6 percent of the sample.

To put it in more social scientific terms, the fact that variation in life outcomes is explained by (or, more precisely, correlated with) factors such as education and obesity doesn’t tell us about why education and obesity vary so much between groups drawn from rich and poor segments of the population. Or, to put it yet another way, the Harvard study is likely to overstress both the sweet and not-so-sweet mysteries of life, precisely because it draws upon a cohort with relatively little internal diversity on key socio-demographic indicators.

There is a very obvious contrast between the baseline assumptions of the Harvard study, and those of Michael Apted’s rightly famous “Seven Up” series of documentaries, which start with British seven year olds from a variety of social backgrounds in 1964, and chart their life courses from then on in. These documentaries began when sociology was really beginning to play a dominant role in British intellectual life (cf Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, which is set some years later), and in some ways display the opposite fault to the Harvard project. As the Wikipedia page notes, Apted has suggested that the children were drawn from the extremes – upper class backgrounds, working class backgrounds, brought up in rural isolation and so on. Nor are their life courses any sort of real experiment (very obviously, the fact that they knowingly participated in this film has profoundly shaped their lives). But even so, the films do illustrate the continued importance of class in Britain (and, one presumes, elsewhere). It doesn’t determine the children’s life courses and possibilities, but it does shape them profoundly. Perhaps not as profoundly as the documentary makers initially expected. The complexity of human affairs, as Brooks would put it, plays an important role that really comes out in the later parts of the series. But to ignore the role of structures that are independent of, and partly causally prior to, their characters and the vagaries of their personal situations would be to miss out on some of what is most crucial to people’s varying life chances. It simply isn’t ‘baffling variety’ and ‘complexity to human affairs’ all the way down – there are rough patterns to people’s lives that can’t be discounted.



Bill Gardner 05.14.09 at 6:42 pm

Your point is well taken, Henry. That said, the Shenk essay is worth reading and Brooks is getting at something. What struck me was the complexity within each life, and how poorly the metaphor of a ‘trajectory’ (a typical metaphor in this field, albeit not used by Shenk) describes the individual lives, even if it captures something about the averaged life histories.


yabonn 05.14.09 at 7:01 pm

Their lives played out in ways that would defy any imagination… save… Dostoyevsky’s!!1!!


Eronarn 05.14.09 at 7:22 pm

I read the longer piece in The Atlantic a bit ago. I agree with your assessment, in general, but I would point out that you neglected to mention what could be thought of as the most important part of this research:

Exhaustive medical exams noted everything from major organ function, to the measure of lactic acid after five minutes on a treadmill, to the size of the “lip seam” and the hanging length of the scrotum.

John F. Kennedy was a Grant Study man, too, though his files were long ago withdrawn from the study office and sealed until 2040. Ironically, it was the notation of that seal in the archive that allowed me to confirm JFK’s involvement, which has not been recognized publicly before now.

Think about it. 31 years to go!


CJColucci 05.14.09 at 7:36 pm

David Brooks ponders the human condition
Six little words at the beginning, which can save a lot of time that might otherwise have been wasted.


Peter 05.14.09 at 7:41 pm

No longitudinal study has ever been more accurate or useful than the Stanford Marshmallow Study. A large group of four-year-old children were told they could have one marshmallow right away, or wait a little while and have two marshmallows. Fourteen years later, a followup of the now 18-year-old subjects showed that those who had waited and got two marshmallows had SAT test scores that were on average more than 200 points higher than those who had eaten one marshmallow right away. A 200-point difference on the SAT is substantially greater than what can be explained by almost any demographic factors such as family income.


Matt 05.14.09 at 7:45 pm

Think about it. 31 years to go!
and then finally the truth about the hanging length of JFK’s scrotum will be reveled! Sometimes these studies make phrenologists look good.


glnelson 05.14.09 at 9:08 pm

Perhaps the third gunshot was fired not by a second assassin from atop the grassy knoll but by a CIA-armed crab planted on JFK’s abnormally low-slung scrotum (see Judith Campbell Exner’s autobiography*).

*My Story, 1977


PreachyPreach 05.14.09 at 9:24 pm

D’yer balls hang low?
Do they swing back and to the left?

Hmm, may need some work.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.14.09 at 9:24 pm

“It simply isn’t ‘baffling variety’ and ‘complexity to human affairs’ all the way down – there are rough patterns to people’s lives that can’t be discounted.”

Indeed, cf.:

“Inequalities in health are…closely tied to inequalities in the most basic freedoms and opportunities that people enjoy.”—Sudhir Anand

“We have known for over 150 years that an individual’s life and death are patterned according to social class: the more affluent and better educated people are, the longer and healthier their lives. These patterns persist–even when there is universal access to health care–a finding quite surprising to those who think financial access to medical services is the primary determinant of health status. In fact, recent cross-national evidence suggests that the greater the degree of socio-economic inequality that exists within a society, the steeper the gradient of health inequality. As a result, middle-income groups in a more unequal society will have worse health than comparable or even poorer groups in a society with greater equality. Of course, we cannot infer causation from correlation, but there are plausible hypotheses about pathways which link social inequalities to health and, even if more work needs to be done to clarify the exact mechanisms, it is not unreasonable to talk here about the social ‘determinants’ of health.”—Norman Daniels

“In our world, poverty is highly relevant to human health. In fact, poverty is far and away the most important factor in explaining health deficits. Because they are poor, 815 million persons are undernourished. 1,100 million lack access to safe drinking water. 2, 400 million lack access to basic sanitation, more than 880 million lack access to health services, and approximately 1,000 million have no adequate shelter. Because of poverty, ‘two out of five children in the developing world are stunted, one in three is underweight and one in ten is wasted.’ [….] One-third of all human deaths are due to poverty-related causes.”—Thomas Pogge

“In the United States…black men in deprived areas have twenty years’ shorter life expectancy than richer white men. The major contributors to this excess mortality are violent deaths, HIV/AIDS, and cardiovascular disease. Poverty of material conditions does not provide a ready biological explanation for the causes of shortened lives. [….] In so far as material deprivation can be seen to cause homicide or risky sexual behavior or drug use, its effects are likely to be through psychological pathways. To be clear, we have had pathways linking material circumstances to disease via exposure to cold, infections, malnutrition. More recently, these have been supplemented by behaviours such as smoking, diet, and physical activity. The psychosocial approach emphasizes subjective experience and emotions that produce acute and chronic stress which, in turn, affect biology and, hence, mental and physical illness. Our growing understanding of psychological factors points to ways that the social environment can have a powerful influence on health. All three types of pathways–material, behavioral, and psychosocial–should be within our focus.”—Michael Marmot

“The basic assumption of the diagnostic framework [of psychiatry] is that the presence of enough particular symptoms, regardless of their cause, indicates an underlying disease. This assumption is especially problematic when psychological and psychosomatic symptoms are products of taxing social environments. People who become depressed and anxious or who develop psychophysiological symptoms when they struggle with stressful life events, difficulties in interpersonal relationships, uncertain futures, bad jobs, and limited resources, react in appropriate ways to their environments; they do not have internal dysfunctions and so are not mentally disordered if their symptoms disappear when their social circumstances change.”—Allan V. Horwitz


Thomas 05.14.09 at 9:49 pm

I thought that Brooks did address these issues: “By any normal measure, they had it made.”


Picador 05.14.09 at 10:41 pm

I read this immediately after reading a bit of emo free verse scraped from the web by my wife. There are distinct similarities between Brooks’ piece and the poem… could “David Brooks” in fact be the nom de plume of a 15-year-old emo kid?

An excerpt, as evidence:

The blast of cold air hit me like a wooden bat, I kept walking on though, taking my seat as the annoying ‘ping’ that would haunt my dreams went on. I’d been on planes before so what was I worried? No, it wasn’t the plane, it was knowing I was just leaving it all behind. I was leaving paradise behind, I was leaving the one place I could call home… the one place I could be accept and starting new. They told me everything would be alright, so what am I worried about? There’s nothing to be afraid of, is what they had said… But I already knew I was (excuse my language) “screwed” from here on out.After what seemed like an eternity, across a vast country I went to the other side, who ever said “the grass is greener on the other side” was filled with bull ideas! I can’t help the rage that now plagues my soul, the batrayal of what seems like a thousand knives piercing my human flesh. Each day I can think and wonder what life would be like. Would I have been hurt like I have? Would I have put up with the thousands of pointless arguments? The pointless self inflicted wounds my friends made my mind endure? Would I have been rejected and told to get lost? Would I be scarred from the rest of humanity?What cruelty could I forsee that only a being of absoloute insanity could forsee?

Haha, just kidding! This was obviously written by Thomas Friedman. (Constructions like “taking my seat as the annoying ‘ping’ that would haunt my dreams went on” are a dead giveaway.)


lemuel pitkin 05.15.09 at 1:47 am

Their lives played out in ways that would defy any imagination… save… Dostoyevsky’s!

Now we just need Holbo to come up with some illustrations for Fyodor D.: Existential Detective.


nnyhav 05.15.09 at 1:52 am

Not before he does Ludwig W, Private Tongue.


flubber 05.15.09 at 4:19 am

Someone once went from Harlem to Harvard (those who don’t, well…)
There is income and class mobility in the US – I have seen the anecdotes.
It’s a crazy, unpredictable world – all down to pluck and luck. And, truly, forces beyond our comprehension. I throw up my hands at the unknowability of it.

It feels like Mr. Brooks, even in the midst of wide-eyed, child-of-the-universe wonder at (what must be) a fascinating study, couldn’t stop himself from insinuating some conservative boilerplate.

But trying to read the guy sympathetically, I would totally agree “there is a complexity to human affairs before which science and analysis simply stands mute.” But I also know that lots of things can be predicted with aggregated data, with certain degrees of consistency. Maybe that is as obvious an observation as his, but he didn’t even mention it in passing, and it suits his team’s political tendencies to ignore it. A couple points:

(1) Maybe he would find less variability in outcomes in poorer socioeconomic strata – the rich had the ability to indulge their dreams, and many fail, while poor people are busy working for food and shelter.
(2) Government health campaigns have probably done a lot to reduce early deaths from alcohol and tobacco – would the profit motive have done this on it’s own?


notsneaky 05.15.09 at 5:55 am

Just started watching the Seven Up series recently (weird coincidence), from the end, and it is really amazing. One thing which struck me – in the beginning, when they’re all seven years old, it is possible, even to an dull American-English ear (sort of) to readily discern the various accents and different ways of talking, and roughly the class associations based on accent alone. You can still hear it in the 14 one but basically by the end of the series, they more or less all have the same accent. And it’s not that the poor kids, once grown ups, end up sounding like the rich kids once grown ups, or even vice versa (which does happen more often then you’d think) but that they all end up with this sort of bland mish-mash that’s everything at once and nothing at all at the same time.


Zamfir 05.15.09 at 7:27 am

bland mish-mash that’s everything at once and nothing at all at the same time.

Yes, American TV has had a large influence an accents. :-)


Steve LaBonne 05.15.09 at 12:16 pm

David Brooks ponders the human condition
Six little words at the beginning, which can save a lot of time that might otherwise have been wasted.

I would suggest that this determination can already be made after the first TWO words.


Barry 05.15.09 at 1:08 pm

No, because it might have been *good* news – “David Brooks was fired from the NYT, due to ‘blathering BS’, according to the NYT press release…”


Steve LaBonne 05.15.09 at 1:22 pm



Martin James 05.15.09 at 1:42 pm

I read the Atlantic article due to a bookforum link and here is where I think a sociological critique of this line of thought is missing the point.

History and sociology tell us interesting things about aggregates like improvements in life expectancy from the increase in calories eaten per day or the difference in life expectancy due to income and education. These facts and theories may be useful for a project of changing the world. But this line of thought is mainly helpful to our knowledge of OTHERS. It doesn’t help us that much with the meaning and running of our own lives.

Knowing one’s own sociological data doesn’t explain enough about whether I should get a divorce or have children or quit drinking or like the Yankees more than the Dodgers or Nadal over Federer or Artistotle to Plato.

Even in the egalitarian utopia where life chances are equalized, there are still CHANCES and people like to think about them.


James Kroeger 05.15.09 at 2:24 pm

From Shenk’s article:

But why do countries with the highest self-reports of subjective well-being also yield the most suicides?

This is not difficult to explain if you can get around to accepting the fact that humans have intrinsic emotional needs, or rather, a fundamental emotional need for the approval of others that causes us to feel pain when it is deprived and pleasure when it is satisfied.

Start from the now-recognized fact that bullies enjoy high levels of self-esteem and then understand where they get their self-esteem from: the many moments when they have castigated others for perceived imperfections. They indirectly claim virtue for themselves as they ridicule the imperfections of others.

Others in the group recognize immediately that the emotional bully’s comments also implicitly praise them, so they join in and have a good time at the expense of their victims. The most desperate of these victims, unfortunately, will attempt/commit/contemplate suicide, so great is the pain they experience.

I would suggest that societies that have a strong individualistic tradition and a ‘cultural reliance’ on emotional victimization as the preferred way to pursue self-esteem are societies that would be likely to have higher levels of reported ‘happiness’ and rates of suicide.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.15.09 at 3:04 pm

Sociological data can, on the contrary, be used to think about questions of personal responsibility and risk. For instance, “There is a risk, in stressing what the individual can do to stay healthy, that an individual’s actual power will be exaggerated, and consequently that people can come to blame themselves, wrongfully, when they fall ill” (David Wikler).

Or consider the following remarks, also from Wikler:

“[A] policy in which individuals are made to shoulder the burden caused by adverse consequences of choices they have made must make ‘the punishment fit the crime.’ The burden re-imposed on the risk-taker should be proportional to the burden imposed by the risk taking. But there is no metric to permit this. One problem is that similar behavior in different people, and in different circumstances, represents quite different levels of risk (Japanese men, for example, are less likely to contract lung cancer from smoking than American men). Moreover, some habits which are unhealthy, even lethal for some are actually health-giving to others; alcohol is the outstanding example. And some habits, because they are taxed, may present a net economic gain to their societies. [….] In this light, proposals to attach importance in health policy to imprudent health-related behavior involve a great deal of hand-waving. A sense of proportion is elusive.”

Now while it is true that we don’t typically turn, say, to sociology in making certain decisions, especially on the order of whether to prefer the Yankees over the Dodgers (anyway, what sensible person prefer the former over the latter?) or Aristotle over Plato (again, only the triumph of cognitive biases and illusions would prompt a choice of the student over the inimitable teacher!), there’s no reason why knowledge sociological findings can’t be one of the items that enter into the determination of certain decisions or choices we make in our daily lives. My knowledge of what others think and do can be crucial to how much time and attention I devote to certain activities: voting, working for social change, paying taxes, or what follows from the appreciation of connections and feedback loops between behavior in my “private” life or the intimate sphere and collective conduct or the political realm (e.g., I may discover that ‘green’ lifestyle choices, at least in the short- or medium-term are fairly innocuous in comparison to electing politicians with ‘green’ political preferences). A sophisticated sociological and historical grasp of tort law may help me see how lawsuits are sometimes the only way corporations can be moved to change their harmful marketing practices, withdraw a harmful product from the market, or steer them in the general direction of socially responsible economic behavior and this knowledge could be relevant to decicisions and choices I make. Without going into details, I would think knowledge of social norms is preferable to lack thereof and that such knowledge might, and at times should, have some impact on choices we make.

Well, much more could be said, but the day’s chores await me.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.15.09 at 3:06 pm

please forgive several typos in the hastily composed comment above


Martin James 05.15.09 at 3:45 pm

Much thanks Paddy O’D.

I always try to include a few typos in my posts as proof of being in the powr elite rather that the academy.


mcd 05.15.09 at 4:01 pm

Human lives are so complicated. So complicated that how can they be helped by one-size-fits-all programs like the New Deal or the Great Society? What liberal folly! (that’s the unspoken David Brooks)


marcel 05.15.09 at 5:30 pm

Preachy Preach at 8 above:

Replace your 2nd line with the ones below:

Do you get a funny feeling,
When you bounce ’em off the ceiling?


Currence 05.15.09 at 6:04 pm

21: Hmm, I would have thought that perhaps this suggests that suicide isn’t the bogeyman it’s made out to be; that living a good and fulfilling life, by one’s own lights, isn’t necessarily incompatible with also wanting to have and actually exercising control over one’s demise; that people commit suicide for many reasons other than “I am unhappy”, e.g. conceptions of a “good death”, the importance of autonomy and willingness to tread one’s own path, etc. But I guess not, that’s crazy talk!


gabe 05.15.09 at 8:36 pm

I’ve been reading Bourdieu again recently, and he certainly is guilty of implying that there are huge psychological benefits to being in the ‘dominant class’ (see also Bauman, Beck, Sennett). So I think on a charitable reading, this is what the article could be getting it (i.e. – where sociology stops, psychotherapy starts).


Chris 05.15.09 at 8:36 pm

Start from the now-recognized fact that bullies enjoy high levels of self-esteem and then understand where they get their self-esteem from: the many moments when they have castigated others for perceived imperfections.

Hmm, I would attribute this to exactly the reverse: since they have such high opinions of themselves, they don’t hesitate to cast the first stone at others. I.e. self-righteousness as a driver of aggression.

Could be a vicious cycle, too.


James Kroeger 05.15.09 at 10:06 pm

From Shenk’s article:

How is it that children are often found to be a source of “negative affect” (sadness, anger)—yet people identify children as their greatest source of pleasure?

Happy people are happy not only because they are experiencing a lot of need-satisfaction (little or no need-deprivation), but also because they expect much need-satisfaction in the future. This is a very, very important aspect of the Happiness Equation, the fact that we spend most of our mental lives in a state of anticipation of the future.

If we expect to experience the pain of need-dissatisfaction in the near future, or if it appears that a once-hoped-for need-satisfaction moment is not likely to occur, we will not be ‘happy’, no matter how much need-satisfaction we might be experiencing at the present moment.

So it is probably fair to say that we have a ‘need’ to be able to expect need-satisfaction in the future (or that need-deprivation will be avoided in the future). If this need is satisfied, we are rewarded with ‘psychic pleasure.’ If it is deprived, we suffer the pain of fear.

As needs go, this need for ‘hope’ is one that can provide compensating mental pleasure that is able to ameliorate to a certain degree the pain that we might otherwise be experiencing. This is why sick people can be comforted by the reassuring words/actions of those who are caring for them, who tell them that pain relief will be coming in the future.

Children give us a great deal of pleasure—in spite of the pain they bring to us—because we anticipate that our sacrifices are actually investments that will eventually be rewarded with the pleasure of need-satisfaction (displays of gratitude). If/when the time arrives when a parent no longer anticipates that her sacrifices will be eventually rewarded with gratitude, she will no longer be ‘happy.’


lemuel pitkin 05.16.09 at 12:23 am

Children give us a great deal of pleasure—-in spite of the pain they bring to us—-because we anticipate that our sacrifices are actually investments that will eventually be rewarded with the pleasure of need-satisfaction (displays of gratitude).

Kroeger here is a whole new kind of crazy.


James Kroeger 05.16.09 at 1:38 am

Kroeger here is a whole new kind of crazy.

Pitkin here is very familiar…a victimizer who seeks to declare the virtues he perceives in himself indirectly through his attack on some third party. We are left to infer—and we do so easily—that he must necessarily be free of the faults that he points out in others and that he deserves credit for it. He [again implicitly] invites you to join in his ridicule so that you may also pat yourselves on the back for your great virtues.

This indirect method of expressing praise for yourself is widely embraced within our culture. Certain political parties habitually depend on these kinds of group comparisons to get themselves elected. They define themselves indirectly, by heaping scorn and ridicule on their political rivalries. It is an inspiration that leads to much evil.


Henry 05.16.09 at 1:59 am

Thanks all, but we will please leave our armchair psychiatric diagnoses of other commenters outside the door. Feel free to argue – but on the specifics of the argument.


Walt 05.16.09 at 2:14 am

Only people with borderline personality disorder insist that we argue only on the specifics of the argument. You can look it up in the DSM-IV.


nnyhav 05.16.09 at 2:28 am

DSM-IV? is that IM abbr for dismissive? in turn a compression of disrespectful missive? which is what commentboxing is?


James Kroeger 05.16.09 at 3:16 am


Feel free to argue – but on the specifics of the argument.

Such a reasonable request…


PGD 05.18.09 at 4:46 am

“We have known for over 150 years that an individual’s life and death are patterned according to social class: the more affluent and better educated people are, the longer and healthier their lives.

Actually, “we” have known this for thousands of years.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.18.09 at 12:42 pm

There’s knowledge and there’s “knowledge:”

The statement presumes or assumes that the knowledge being spoken of here is of the evidentiary sort that would satisfy social scientists and others insofar as it arises from a (more or less) detailed examination of the relevant empirical data. In other words, thousands of years ago, any such claim to knowledge of this sort would have lacked the requisite empirical evidence (if only becaus the means and methods of modern science were not available) to render it plausible or persuasive according to the standards of post-Enlightenment science.


LFC 05.18.09 at 11:00 pm

The post makes a good point. I would add that the Schenk article, which I read quickly yesterday, suggests some ways in which Vaillant’s own background and life history, not surprisingly, might have influenced his interpretations of the data. This is not directly relevant to Henry’s point, but I thought it was one of the most interesting parts — actually the most interesting part — of the article.


Andri 05.19.09 at 9:28 pm

That some of a group of 268 men of great privilege and wealth had varied and fascinating lives is surprising? This study seems to mix voyeurism with the romantic fancy of finding the ‘success factor.’ That it awes Mr. Brooks is telling: it’s an awesome conversation piece for the sermorati.

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