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What makes a man happy?

Posted in Aging, Life & Love, and Relationships

My father, Roy

sofaparents are playing through the rough at the moment. Various health issues have been plaguing them and my mother’s dear friend just had a terrifying brush with death thanks to a blood clot that literally shut down her body’s systems and left her in a puddle of blood on an operating table.

In the mix of all of this is an ongoing debate whether they should move to Cape Town or no. Not an easy one – there are valid and salient points for and against – with each parent coming down on different sides of the argument.

Roy and Glenis live in a beautiful retirement village in Johannesburg – one that would be hard to match in land-stretched, expensive Cape Town. They have lived in Johannesburg for over four decades and have friends and bridge partners and established routines there. All things that make up the fabric of ‘a life’. But we are in Cape Town. And so are three of the grandchildren: the big draw card.

There has been lots of discussion and they have both been suffering under the whip of making a decision (which they don’t have to do anytime soon).  My dad seems to be bearing the worst of the unhappiness spill. Mom feels it too, but “just gets on with it”, as she always does.

I asked the old bokkie what he really needed in life right now. His list seemed to come back to being close to us all, but I know it can never be only one thing. Any life is composed of many facets – all of which play in some harmony to make the days sing. When I said as much, he faltered: which got me to wondering – does our definition of what constitutes happiness change, as we get older? My dad is 78, what does make a man of his age happy? I’ve read plenty of studies that examine happiness in women, but what about the fellows?

540567_433784500024509_1523643283_nHarvard University thought this was a valid question. In 1938 they kicked off the Grant Study: the longest-running longitudinal studies of human development in history. The research data covered an astonishingly wide range of psychological, anthropological, and physical traits: ranging from personality type, IQ, drinking habits and political leanings through family relationships, coping strategies and even the “hanging length of his scrotum”.

The study followed 268 men from their undergrad status into their nineties: documenting, for the first time, what it is like to flourish far beyond conventional retirement. In 2012 George Vaillant, director of the study for more than three decades, published his findings in Triumphs of Experience

The study’s conclusions are interesting – reporting, as they do, straight from the horse’s mouth (men weren’t allowed to respond with the word: “fine”). Two observations, in particular, resonated for me:

1.  The most powerful correlation between a man’s health and happiness in later years was found in the warmth of his lifetime’s relationships. This has been well documented, so no surprise there. But it was the influence of their maternal relationship on a man’s work success and mental health that intrigued me:
– men that had ‘warm’ childhood relationships with their mothers took home $87,000 more per year than men whose mothers were uncaring
– late in their professional lives, the men’s boyhood relationships with their mothers — but not their fathers — were associated with effectiveness at work
– men who had poor childhood relationships with their mothers were much more likely to develop dementia when old.

Warm relationships with their fathers played an important part in men’s lives too. A robust connection with Dad correlated with “lower rates of adult anxiety, greater enjoyment on vacations, and increased ‘life satisfaction’ at age 75. Whereas the warmth of childhood relationships with mothers had no significant bearing on life satisfaction at 75.”

So your mother got you going, your father kept you going.

2. Alcohol abuse was by far the greatest disruptor of health and happiness for men. With Vaillant stating unequivocally: “Alcoholism is a disorder of great destructive power and the single strongest cause of divorce between the Grant Study men and their wives.”

He also noted that neurosis and depression, believed to trigger drinking – “most often followed alcohol abuse, rather than preceded it.” And it is fatal: the study shows that “together with cigarette smoking, alcoholism proves to be the #1 greatest cause of morbidity and death.”

So, no upside in the bottle.

But, there was upside elsewhere:
– Physical aging after 80 is determined less by heredity than by habits formed prior to 50. So, credit for growing old with grace and vitality is more about how we take care of ourselves than stellar genetic makeup.
– Recovery from a lousy childhood is possible and memories of a happy childhood are a lifelong source of strength.
– Marriages bring much more contentment after age 70.

And lastly, an observation that holds hope for Democrats and Libertarians everywhere: aging liberals have more sex. Political ideology had no bearing on overall life satisfaction, but the most conservative men, on average, shut down their sex lives around age 68. While the most liberal men had healthy sex lives well into their 80s.

Something to think about next time you are at the polls, chaps.

Vaillant happily concludes that the study results “offer some welcome news for the new old age: our lives continue to evolve in our later years, and often become more fulfilling than before”.   But he says, his most important finding was this: “The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points to a straightforward five-word conclusion: Happiness is love. Full stop.”

(Read more about about the Study in Triumphs of Experience. Photo of Roy copyright campari&sofa. Photo of the potholes in the public domain.)

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  1. silvia

    I read and reread your post very carefully cause after my father had a severe heart attack a few years ago, I’m very concerned with anything that has to do with his needs, both for his health and psyche.
    Giorgio had always been an extremely energetic man and finding out that he no longer could totally devote himself to those phisycal activities that meant happiness to him – taking care of his trees, plants and flowers is top list – caused shock in the first place and then deep sadness.
    This experience taught him to ask for help at least in some departments of his life and I think that for men of our fathers’ generation it’s a very difficult task because they were taught never to do so.
    The idea of being a good men did not include the possibility to reach out for assistance.
    Asking for help allowed him to find a younger buddy for his outdoor adventures, someone who can cope with his lack of strength.
    To my astonishment a few days ago I heard him pronouncing the words we are more and more counting and depending on you.
    On the other hand he always spent time doing his best – which not always turned out to be what needed to be the right thing to do – to give attention to the ones he cared for and I was very young when he taught me that relationships are the one thing that really matters in life.
    Was it because he had both a father and a mother who cared for him? It sounds reasonable and plausibly my grandparents made him a decent men and a good father.
    So I couldn’t agree more on what the survey states, happiness is love in all its various shapes and combinations.

    December 5, 2013

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