harvard study of happiness importance of relationships

The successniks of Silicon Valley learn philosophy, but search for the secret sauce continues

‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’
– Robert Frost

“Practical philosopher” Andrew Taggard disabuses founders, executives, and others in Silicon Valley of the notion that life is a problem to be solved, and happiness awaits those who do it:

“Philosophers arrive on the scene at the moment when bullshit can no longer be tolerated,” says Taggart. “We articulate that bullshit and stop it from happening. And there’s just a whole lot of bullshit in business today.”

Taggart seems to preform a sort of CBT on CEOs. This article also features the term successnik when talking about the Silicon Valley execs. What a gem.

But wait, maybe we have the secret sauce after all?

Harvard/MassGen “psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and Zen priest” Robert Waldinger draws an interesting conclusion to one of the longest studies on happiness, carried out at Harvard…

Now, before we get all excited, it is an observational study of a small-ish bunch of Boston men, so go easy on the extrapolation. But here is the said sauce:

“So what have we learned? What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pages of information that we’ve generated on these lives? Well, the lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

I asked a similar question of Dr John McBurney – and his answer was community as well. Other research points out that when it comes to relationships, the absence of the negative is far more important than any grand gestures or unbelievable highs in determining whether these relationships will last.

successniks of silicon valley learn philosophy

Given that for millions of years our very survival has been predicated on our tribe much more so than on our personal achievements, it makes sense that we weight it so highly. Evolution carved us out for survival and not for happiness.

So perhaps, somewhere between the first and second step of the Maslow pyramid (that is physiological needs and safety), we’ve been missing community. In today’s society we can pay for the fulfilment of both of those – and that’s where most people are stuck.

Why do people want to be successful? Because it solidly ticks off the bottom two steps of the pyramid. If you are more cynical, let me phrase it this way: hedonism is step one, narcissism is step two.

Maybe the hack is in the fact that having a community provides both physiological and safety cover. Furthermore, unlike money in an of itself, it also let’s us into the higher up steps of the pyramid. I am calling it a “hack” because few people consciously feel community is that important.

Why don’t more people invest into community?

1. “I want to be special”

Blending in with a community is no fun. If you didn’t figure it out on your own, is it worth the same to you? All the cool guys seem to have done it one their own. We know that’s not true, of course.

However, it is hard to have a lot of impact if all you ever do is comply with the unspoken traditions of your community. So in a sense, it does prevent personal accomplishment. It’s important to clarify that you can’t make do with any sort of community: it has to be supportive. A conflicted community (or family) is probably more harmful than being alone based on what Dr Waldinger discussed.

2. “You can’t trust no one”

Indeed, communities do have a way of ostracising people – and generally being poisonous when things aren’t going well. All of a sudden your neighbour of yesterday is making a business out of your misery. We have all heard the stories from wars and famines that illustrate people’s disregard for the life of another in extreme circumstances.

This fact doesn’t stand alone of course. We’ve also all heard stories of altruistic sacrifices around those same wars and famines. And – what if you had been working in an individualistic rather than a community-centred manner: this isn’t a guarantee either because you’ve invested into things that may not have any value in extreme circumstances.

In the extreme, banks collapse, property gets nationalised, political regimes choose new heroes and scape goats… Less extremely, industries rise and fall, changing laws and regulations present new challenges.

If you want to be pragmatic about it, think of community as a diversification strategy. It seems that trusting your own accomplishments over trusting the community is a false path to success – whatever for you feel you need it.

harvard happiness stud role of community

12 thoughts on “The successniks of Silicon Valley learn philosophy, but search for the secret sauce continues”

  1. Re “1. ‘I want to be special’ Blending in with a community is no fun…” This comment may help explain the attitude but misses the mark. we are socail animals. “Being special” requires the acknowledgement of others. If there are no others to Ooh! and Aaah! we end up “being a legend in our own mind.”

    I was under contract to a publisher and I was visiting their offices on a Friday, At 3PM each and every Friday, the entire staff got together and shared accomplishments. So-and-so’s book came out. The editor in charge stood up and took a bow and then pointed out the copy editor, illustrator, etc. who contributed to the project. All got hoots and hollers and much applause. This went along until “final call” when the group was asked if anyone else had a triumph to share, so it didn’t stop until everyone had a chance to “be special.” (By the way, attendance was mandatory, the CEO rolled his chair out of the office into the central “pit” to see and be seen.)

    The “traditions of the community” aren’t necessarily in contradiction to an individual’s goals. And a community doesn’t have to insist on conformity, but working together with others requires some degree of give and take with those others and that is actually a good thing.


    1. Ah Steve that’s brilliant! (Though “very American”, as we somewhat pathetically like to say over here).

      I think you can admire yourself without many other people: accomplishments have a life of their own, they don’t need other people once they are meant. Ultimately though, you are right of course – we are all interdependent, and isolating ourselves fro this fact is only a fallacy


  2. Interesting – I think you are on to something. This reminded of something a religious studies teacher once told me: that when the Bible was translated from it’s original language, some of the words were altered, including the word “community” which through translation was converted to “church”. I have always preferred the idea that community was what we were meant to build over buildings.


  3. Your opinion of the following would be useful:

    As hunter-gatherers altruism, that is, community, was built in. Everyone relied on everyone else.

    As agriculture developed and civilization rose this remained true but less so. An individual could leverage the community but not actually contribute altruistically. The balance of community vs individualism started to tilt.

    These days, although we all need society to provide our Maslow #1 and #2, we don’t ever need to join a community, to contribute as citizens, to be altruistic. Millions of the wealthy own and rent — the return of the *rentier* society. Plutocrats, oligarchs, fascists, corporatists all can tap society without ever participating in community (in the classic sense).

    But I wonder, this can’t last. As inequality grows, humanity’s communal sense diminishes. Our built in altruism, which served to lift humanity up out of the animal kingdom, can’t possibly lose this balancing act can it? Will we reach a point that snaps this trend and Diamond’s Collapse bring us down and back to our human community roots?


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