Wednesday, November 7, 2012


 David Brooks writes:

Dead people are very different from you and me. Especially if they've been dead for a fairly long time. This is one of the things I have gleaned from a wide reading of the biographies of people from the mid-20th century, which is just the kind of endearingly whimsical thing I might take a sudden interest in while clods like you are biting your nails over the elections. What elections?

First, dead people are more likely to have experienced a death in the family other than their own, I mean while they were still alive, including the death of a child, which may have affected their world views, though historians have not studied this, at least I haven't heard whether they have or not, and I don't really expect anybody to call me on it.

Second, they are more likely to have grown up in a cold and emotionally distant household, rarely even seeing their fathers except at the cocktail hour, when Nanny would present them to him fresh from their baths just before he took Mamma into dinner. Researchers, too, were cold and distant. Perhaps the terrible mortality rates of young people were a factor in this. You wouldn't want to become too attached to a research subject who might die at any moment; it would be like being a fairly well-known political philosopher and watching an attractive conservative movement in its full youthful vigor suddenly sicken and collapse.

The researchers that ran the Grant Project, a longitudinal study of 268 men who were Harvard students in 1938, when the study began, avoided their subjects' interior lives, measuring their visible signs of manliness and vigor and ignoring their relationships, in the style that was then current, measuring the circumference of their skulls but not the breadth of their hearts. But it turned out that body type was irrelevant to their success in later life; what counted was the relative warmth of their parents. In World War II, subjects with warm parents rose to the highest levels of authority, serving as colonels and generals, while those with stand-off parents remained enlisted men, stuck in the rank and file.

"It was the capacity for intimate relationships," writes George Vaillant, director of the study, in his book Triumphs of Experience, "that predicted flourishing in all of these men's lives."

Incidentally, did you notice how I did that? Mentioned the study in the most general possible terms in the opening paragraph, got down to a more specific view later on, and only afterwards mentioned the book that showed up in my Kindle a couple of days ago when I was desperate for something other than Romney to write about? Giving the impression that it's just one of many relevant things I've read, some in academic venues that are far too dense for you to check out, when in fact everything I mention in this column comes from that one slightly self-helpy book, and most from its first chapter? I've been doing it since I was in eighth grade, and it hasn't failed yet.

I find it's best not to commit yourself to reading a whole book, when it might turn out to be unpopular, or fraudulent, or too difficult. You might have to wait years before you can squeeze another column out of it, and by then it doesn't do anything for the publisher who sent it to you in the first place.

In any case, all these guys are in their 90s now, except for those who were unable to form intimate relationships, who are mostly dead, and it has developed that people can change as they grow older: they can learn to have a more satisfying life. One man who had a career as a public relations flack, stuck in a loveless marriage, finally got a divorce after retiring in his 70s, wrote a scandalous roman à clef about his old clients, sold it to a movie studio, and moved to the beach with his hot Finnish girlfriend. I wonder if I'll have more friends when I'm that age. I wonder if Krugman really thinks I'm stupid.

We know from the Flynn effect that people get smarter as they get older, that the IQs go up. Perhaps we become emotionally more intelligent too. Romney would never go for a road trip with the dog strapped to the roof nowadays. It's too bad people can't see him as he is instead of being misled by his deceptions. He might have won hands down. I wonder if I should write a novel.

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