On MLK’s anniversary, a reminder that we need to change the language of the culture

What we are ignoring, at our continued peril

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One of the most remarkable studies of human beings and what makes us thrive in the world is the Harvard Grant Study, an almost 80-year longitudinal study of 268 men that started in 1938.

The now popular project, measured everything from personality type to drinking habits to hanging lengths of the scrotum to establish what the most important factors are that enable human flourishing and well lived life.

More remarkable for me, in reading through the thoughts of the impressive George Vaillant, who directed the study for more than three decades, was the way that he explained the number one thing that predicted those who lived longest and happiest. He called it: warm relationships.

“When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment,” said Vaillant. “But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.” Those who kept warm relationships got to live longer and happier, repeated his colleague, Robert Waldinger in his review of the study last year, and the loners often died earlier.

It has become a running joke among my colleagues at our company, Joy, Inc.: What, did they take the relationships and put them in a microwave, to warm up?

Of course not. It turns out that ‘warm relationships’ is actually the more ‘clinical’ word for something we all have known since the beginning of time. Summarising the results of a bunch of other studies on the same subject, Dario Maestripierian evolutionary biologist from the University of Chicago, made it simpler: “In short, whether you like it or not: love is good for you.”

So, yes, Vaillant was talking about love.

So why didn’t he just say it? Well, there are issues of precision, and empiricity. But then there is also the matter of the culture. Think of it this way: if Theresa May suddenly walked up to the podium at the World Economic Summit, or Vladimir Putin walked up to the stage at a meeting and began to speak about love, what would the world say? The articles would be biting, scathing. Love is not a word that people who want to be taken seriously bandy about without caution.

Same as those other fuzzy words – kindness, forgiveness, compassion, peace, joy. I mean, for happiness to be taken seriously as an academic concept, it had to be upgraded to the much grander term: human flourishing.

Yet, here we are 50 years after the death of one of the world’s greatest political and civic leaders, of our time, or any time, and what are we celebrating him for? Well, presenting his radical, revolutionary, successful ideas and battles in the same words that we now often run away from if we must we must be taken seriously.

“I have decided to stick to love… Hate is too great a burden to bear,” he wrote powerfully in A Testament of Hope. “Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.”

Of course, he used strong words – decrying oppression, underlining protest, and iron feet and those who were trampled upon. Of course, he did. But when it came to the solutions, he was as unequivocal as he was criticized by those who wanted from him more “realistic” language: he insisted on love, he insisted on forgiveness, he insisted on hope, he insisted on healing, he spoke often of faith.

But where are those who will be inspired by that bravery to confront the language of the culture – the soul-sucking, draining, adversarial speak of anger, and rage, and bitterness, and unforgiveness, and binaries – and find a wholeness that we all know exists, because it’s what science and philosophy has called the highest of human goods, of human meaning?

The global culture needs a different kind of language, one brave enough to be vulnerable, one strong enough to be warm. And it needs leaders who will find the strength and security from their insides to tell the world what it needs to hear, and to guide it home.

“We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself,” King. Jr. told us those many years ago.

We choose to ignore the wisdom of those who truly had the capacity to change the world, to our own continued peril. 

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