Posted by: Harold Knight | 07/27/2011

A brother. Required for happiness?

The center of happiness?

The center of happiness?

It’s only fair. Having written about my sister and my father, I should now include my brother in this public confessional. His birthday was a few days ago. I won’t depress both of us by saying how old he is, but he’s ancient.

Relationships among siblings fascinate me. I know people who have perfectly hideous—sometimes estranged, sometimes not—relationships with their siblings but are (apparently) well-adjusted and successful. Some folks are fortunate to have friendly, enjoyable relationships with their siblings but are neither well-adjusted nor particularly successful.

In 2009 Atlantic Monthly published an article titled “What Makes Us Happy?” (1). (I’ve written a bit about it before.) It purports to reveal what makes us happy. It’s about what has made a select group of men who were students at Harvard seventy years ago happy, the kind of common men  we all count as our friends (John F. Kennedy was one of the men in the study). The study has kept track of these 268 men for their entire lives. The title of the article implies, of course, that it is a guide to happiness for you and me. Doubtful. Fortunately it reports that at least one of the men “fell down drunk and died.”

Shenk describes the project as

. . . one of the longest-running—and probably the most exhaustive—longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history. Begun in 1937 as a study of healthy, well-adjusted Harvard sophomores (all male), it has followed its subjects for more than 70 years (2).

Healthy, well-adjusted Harvard sophomores. I wonder what a healthy, well-adjusted male sophomore looks like. Is he the one who sends his mother after the professor to protest his grade? Is he the one who goes off to New Orleans on a drunken fraternity weekend and misses a test? Is he the one who works together with his buddy and the two of them submit the exact same bibliography for their final research project—and then complain about their grades?

This was not intended to vent my frustration with students in my college classes, but to somehow think about brothers—a little meditation on being and having siblings. The Harvard Study, according to Shenk,  has provided evidence of the importance of relationships, especially sibling relationships, for thriving when one gets as old as my brother, sister, and I are. The study provides evidence that

Warm connections are necessary—and if not found in a mother or father, they can come from siblings, uncles, friends, mentors. The men’s relationships at age 47. . .  predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable. . . Good sibling relationships seem especially powerful: 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger (3).

It’s difficult for me to remember age 47. I was a few years sober (hence my comment about falling down drunk and dying), living alone in my condo, and working full-time in my profession for the first time in my life. It’s not my place to write about what my siblings were up to at that point. But I will say that our relationships were important and fairly warm. Our relationships have had their ups and downs, of course, but that does not mean they are not close, warm connections. From my perspective, I’d say they get better and better as we get older.

A longitudinal study

A longitudinal study

One caveat for the Harvard study may be necessary. The primary interpreter of the data, Psychiatrist George Vaillant, may not be a true judge of “warm connections.” Married to three women (the second both before and after the third), with five children who have been estranged from him much of the time since his second divorce, he may not be a paragon of maintaining healthy relationships. Of course, that does not necessarily mean his interpretation is skewed.

Vaillant says, “It is social aptitude, not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging” (4).

Social aptitude.  Successful aging. What makes us happy?

A minority report may be in order here. The 286 Harvard men, for all of their physical exams, filling out questionnaires, giving interviews to Dr. Vaillant and his colleagues, and appearing among the great and famous in the news may not, in fact, be the best judges of whether or not they are “happy.” It may well be that

there are good reasons for doubting that any of us have a firm grasp on the quality of our experience of life, in particular its affective character. Possibly, many of us are profoundly ignorant about such matters, to the point that we often don’t know whether we are happy or unhappy, or even whether our experience is pleasant or unpleasant (5).

What if the Harvard Study is based on a fallacy—that we can know whether or not we are happy. I’ve written recently about our obsession with happiness, about the linguistically imprecise use of the word “happiness,” and about the amorphous understanding of what each of us considers would make us “happy.”

I am perfectly willing to concede that I am no judge of happiness, mine or anyone else’s (after all, I take drugs to maintain a semblance of equanimity).

The list of the desirable qualities of our lives based on “What makes us happy” is probably infinite. Each of us knows what makes us happy. But if

. . . you think yourself far happier than you are, or badly overrate the quality of your experience, then you may become complacent and fail to address serious deficiencies in your quality of life. And if you think yourself unhappy when you’re not . . . then you may seek changes that undermine the happiness you didn’t realize you had (6).

What makes us happy?

What makes us happy?

My thinking is more poetry than logic, but I have one idea in juxtaposing Shenk and Hayborn. I wrote here recently that being “at home” in the homes of those one loves makes possible the sense of being “at home” in the universe. Perhaps I can extend that. “Thriving” at 65 (or any age) is, I should think, a construct of the heart more than of the mind. I wonder which is easier, looking around at one’s life full of “apps” and Lexi and saying, “I’m happy,” or looking around at one’s lack of “apps” and Lexi and saying, “I’m unhappy.”

Both are based on false evidence.  Neither has anything to do with happiness. Security in the mutual love I share with my brother—in spite of our enormous differences in personality and view of the world—is, for me, crucial. One can find that security in other relationships, but finding it is crucial. I said this is more poetry than logic. Don’t ask me how I know. I just do. Maybe George Vaillant is right. I’m probably happier than I know.
(1) Shenk, Joshua Wolf, Peter Arkle, and Istvan Banyai. “What Makes Us Happy?” Atlantic Monthly 303.5 (June 2009): 36-53.
(2) ibid.
(3) ibid.
(4) ibid.
(5) Haybron, Daniel M. “Do We Know How Happy We Are? On Some Limits of Affective Introspection and Recall.” Nous 41.3 (2007): 394-428.
(6) Hayborn op. cit,


  1. you didn’t mention that the picture of you two was announcing my arrival which would change your world forever. 🙂


  2. Ah, but I write about you fairly often. Poor brother might not have existed as far as this blog is concerned until today. Your arrival made our world complete!



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