Yale University

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Reply to William McGaughey "On Finding a Positive Self-Identity for a Person like Me"

Charles Goldman

December 21, 2013

Category: Society > Rights

I assume your last paragraph is a serious request. As a psychiatrist, I have tried to keep up with empirical evidence that relates to these questions. My main source for this response is Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant, and a body of work including the books Aging Well (2002) and Triumphs of Experience (2012). Dr. Vaillant and his team have studied a cohort of over 700 white men first recruited into longitudinal studies around 1940 (when they were teenagers) and followed for the next 6 to 7 decades. The outcomes being measured include physical and mental health, economic success, and the quantity and quality of relationships. Here are some of Vaillant’s conclusions:

“The protective factors … — a stable marriage, the ability to make lemonade from lemons, avoiding cigarettes, modest use of alcohol, regular exercise, high education, and maintaining normal weight — allow us to predict thirty years in the future. … The good news is that most of us — if we start young and try hard — can voluntarily control our weight, our exercise, and our abuse of cigarettes and/or alcohol, at least by the time we are fifty. And with hard work and/or therapy we can improve our relationships with our most significant other and use fewer maladaptive defenses. … Whether we live to a vigorous old age lies not so much in our stars or our genes as in ourselves.”

"The two pillars of happiness revealed by the 75-year-old [Harvard] study … are love and a mature coping style that does not push love away.”

“Successful aging means giving to others joyously whenever one is able, receiving from others gratefully whenever one needs it, and being greedy enough to develop one’s own self in between.”

There is a lot more to say, but not in this space. My answers to the questions are:

Yes, I can be proud of my accomplishments and of those of my loved ones, white or black or other color. Happiness (longevity, good physical and mental health, strong connections with others, subjective satisfaction with life in old age) is surely within reach of white men, especially ones with a college education. A high (socio-economic) station in life gives most people a head start and makes future happiness more, not less, likely. However, the factors that Vaillant mentions are much more important than family social class, race, or success of one’s parents.