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Mom, Dad, and Happiness

So let me remind you that The Atlantic does the best job of popularizing scientific studies.  For one thing, it’s remarkably unideological.  Both the left and the right—and the libertarians and the traditionalists—can find stuff that reaffirms—and stuff that challenges—their cherished perspectives.  It might be the least dogmatic of our periodicals.

Here Scott Stossel presents a pithy update on Harvard’s “Grant Study, one of the longest-running studies of human development.”  It lets us in on “what factors contribute most strongly to human flourishing.”

It’s most insistent finding “is the powerful correlation between the warmth of your relationships and your health and happiness in old age.”

Men who have a “warm” relationship with their moms make a lot more money than those with “uncaring” moms.  Not only that, those with a poor relationship with mom are “much more likely to develop dementia when old.”  Try to explain that latter finding; I sure can’t.

Generally, that relationship with mom is associated with effectiveness or productivity at work.  Because we live, as far as I can tell, in more of a meritocracy based on productivity than ever, our “nudge” economists, it seems to me, should be incentivizing a world in which moms can be as caring as possible.

It goes without saying that single moms can be caring, but surely it’s easier for married women freed up to some extent from the necessity of being all that productive.  Should we be giving tax breaks for stay-at-home moms?

BUT fathers are important too, although apparently in a different way.  A warm relationship with dad correlates better with happiness, with being less anxious, having a greater capacity for enjoyment, and even the experience of “life satisfaction” as your life nears its natural end.

So people with an absent or distant dad and a caring mom are more productive, but less happy.  And people with a caring dad and a distant mom, perhaps, are more happy whether or not they’re productive.

The study director’s “takaway” is:  “Happiness is love.”  But maybe that’s not quite right.  Happiness is stable, loving, trustworthy relationships, most of all within families.  No Darwinian or evolutionary psychologist should be surprised by this conclusion, of course.

The study also shows that intelligence might be less important than some have said in predicting success in terms of income.  Those with IQs of 115 make as much money as those with IQs over 150.  The idea that America is ruled by a “cognitive elite”—the idea that brains, above all, are what sells these days—turns out to be at least not quite true.  Who your mom and dad are just as important as how smart they (and you) are.


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