Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Okay, if you have some time and an inclination to read something long and involved, I suggest you check on this piece in The Atlantic.

Ok, the story is about a long running Harvard study that has sought to determine what makes people happy by following around a group of college students since 1937. These aren't just run of the mill college students. These are the creme de la creme and as such, their ranks include some of the most important movers and shakers of the past century.

Anyway, as I read the story, early on I was struck by something. The author makes a point of noting that the study only includes men. The author does not make a point of noting that the study only includes white people.

Now, as a friend pointed out, that might be because the study contained some black people. But, I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that given the time, given the pedigree of the candidates and given the criteria established for choosing participants, it did not. After all, I doubt that many folks looking to choose the perfectly "normal" college sophomore on Harvard's campus in 1937 would have chosen a black guy. It's a guess, but I'd call it a good one.

I bring this up because it made me think about something. The study is supposed to have revealed some definitive truths about happiness for human beings, but the only human beings studied were relatively wealthy white men. Can a study of the lives of wealthy white men give us answers about life for everyone?

You know, I really don't know.

On one hand, my first response was, "This means nothing since nobody who looked like me, or had life experiences like me, was included."

Then I thought about. Black people often ask to be looked at as humans first. We ask people not to make assumptions based on our color. We stress that we have the same human characteristics as everyone else. So, if I truly believe this is true, why should it matter if no black people were involved in this study?

These men have the same emotions, the same strengths and the same failings as me, despite our different lives. At our cores, we share the same human foibles. So, ostensibly, I should be able to learn from what happened to them in their lives and apply that knowledge to my life. The truths discovered about them, should apply to me.

But, I'm not sure.

Because it goes back to the question of whether the most important part of human development is nature or nurture. After all, while the stock material might be the same, the lives lived by white men in 1937 and black men in 1937 were vastly different on average.

How much do those differences contribute to the emotions these men display, to the mistakes they make, to the values they hold dear and to the lives they live? The study found that certain decisions, like having a close relationship with a sibling, could make life much better, but does that hold true if that close relationship is shaped by poverty and discrimination? Does the relationship offer the same strength, or is it then a burden?

While we all may be human and our skin color largely unimportant on a genetic level, it is vastly important on a social level? Can we truly learn important truths about the human experience if we only study one race of human beings? Given the importance of race in this world, does that make sense?

I don't know the answer, but I thought it might be an interesting question for y'all to ponder.

If you accept the challenge.



Lisa J said...

Big Man, I'll bite since no one else did and this will be long. I read the article (work has been sloooowwww). It was intersting. Even though I'm not a man, since the story talks about men, I'll mostly focus on men and in generalities of humankind rather than women.

I think the fact that some of those predicted to do so well had such difficult lives and some who, by Harvard standards, were expected to be more middle of the road, did better than expected says a lot. Every person is unique and many factors go in to how they end up in life and some of that is temperant, some of it is luck, being in the right place at the right time, meeting the right person or people, talent, etc. Also people's success can go in phases, you might start out low and go high and then be low again or vice versa.

I look at my father who once had a promising career as an executive salesman with IBM, he made good money, won top awards with them, the whole nine. Then he got passed over for a promotion, a few years after my Mom and I left him and moved away. He felt the loss of the promiton was because he was black, he started telling his bosses he would sue them (probably not smart to do before you file and while you are there), got fired, his case never came to anything and he never bounced back. He has never had a professional job since, he's been a cab driver, an apartment manager fix-it dude for a shabby near-ghetto building, he did taxes, was temporarily homeless (he never told Mom or me about that one until after the fact),and other various things but mostly the cab. He claims IBM blackballed him in his industry, and as far as I can tell as someone who wasn't around at the time to watch him day to day and since I was a child, it seems he never picked himself, dusted himself off and started over again, to paraphrase Kenny Rodgers. And he has never struck me as happy. People who knew him before his professional fall tell me he was funny, friendly and the life of the party, but I don't think he was happy on the inside even with the success. Now maybe he was right and he was being discriminated against b/c he was black, it was the 70's blacks had only just begun to be in senior positions so that is highly possible, or maybe the other guy was better, I'll never know. Maybe if my Dad had been white he'd have been more able to get another professional job, but maybe not. A friend told me a similar story about a friend of hers and what happened to her Dad and that guy was white. I think it was more of his outlook and how he reacted though that sabatoged my father. But he was always sort of an odd duck and before losing his job he was one of those blacks that lots of whites looked on as "different."

Now the average black man, especially of that era had lots of hurdles to jump over, starting with education (which my father had), and opportunities and whites not be interested so "success" in the way we think of it in America is more elusive. Even if you don't measure success in terms of how much money you make or how big your house is, but in the more "touchy-feely" way, for lack of a better term, and maybe in terms of how close you are with your family, and your relationships, which the article discussed, black men have some more chance as a grossly general group but maybe not so much as whites. Given how our society stereotypes, segregates and attacks the humanness of all blacks, especially males, the societal forces that contribute to our families being pulled apart, and the horror in so many cities where young boys get dragged into gang life and crime, when in other circumstances they might have been average citizens, it also makes it a little more difficutlt to maintain close family ties, raise your own children, etc etc. It is of course must more complicated than that, and as I mentioned before with temprament, some people,few, but some, are just happy and whether they are rich and live in the lap of luxury, are an average Joe or Jane and has a middling life, or are dirt poor and experiences some bad, even tragic things, they just seem to keep their head up, are able to bounce back from adversity, and seem to have an aura of peace around them and they are able to laugh despite it all. It is amazing, and some people have the world essentially handed to them on a platter and they are never happy and have tragic lives, as did some of these Harvard men in the article. It is fascinating.

THat sort of leads me to believe, to some extent, that nature is very important because some times there are things about us that, if say we tend to unhappiness, we need lots of help and introspection and therapy to fix and make us happy and some people who are more on the happy side or continum have to have something really, really, really horrible happen to change that and then still they might bounce back. Most of us fall in the middle and our degree of happiness involves a lot of things and though. Interesting topic. I think more people didn't reply because it is so big and intangible.

I really wish you could still safely discuss politics b/c I'd love to know what you think of the Cheney-paloza tour with Dick and Liz (his straight daughter) and all of their chicken-little, we will all die now that his O-ness and team are on the case thing. Craziness

Darth Whitey said...

Psst! I'm probably not supposed to tell you this, but us white folks have a secret feeling y'all don't have: a permanent gladness about being white.

heh I kid, I kid. Interesting stuff!

Big Man said...

Thanks for the comment, I appreciated you thinking about it. And, I too wish I could comment on the Cheney tag team and the ridiculousness of this whole farce. Trust me, it bothers me every single day.

Anyway, like you, I just can't decided between nature and nurture. I see all the societal forces at work, then I see the rare duck that seems to prosper despite them. So, that tells me it's possible, if not probable. But, what does that tell me about people in general? I'm just not sure.


I always knew it.

Lisa J said...

I said "Now the average black man, especially of that era had lots of hurdles to jump over, starting with education (which my father had), and opportunities and whites not be interested so "success" in the way we think of it in America is more elusive." I really messed that that up. I was trying to say that black men of that era had hurdles and fewer opportunities than whites, so they had less of a chance to acheive "success" in the usual American way. I must have been distracted. SHeesh.

Steffie said...

Big Man I only read what you wrote and the headline of the article. It should have been called: What makes white upperclass men happy.
In my opinion a study of any value would have included people of different colors, different backgrounds and of course men and women.
@ Darth, you need to learn to speak for yourself as not everybody with pale skin feels that way.

Darth Whitey said...

Steffie: don't be so sensitive and learn to take a joke, you ultra-liberal yupee PC police, guilt-ridden honkey! :-)

I'm sorry for going off-topic but I have got to show you folks this, I hope it's the subject of a post:

Anonymous said...

Not sensitive at all Thor Whitey

Steffie said...

Ooops, sorry Darth Whitey, for the above Freudian slip,I got the name wrong.

Raving Black Lunatic