Why would anyone want to get a degree from Harvard University? For many, the answer seems so obvious as to not need an explanation. In addition to its potential to launch a successful and lucrative career, a degree from such a prestigious institution means that you have successfully beaten the competition—and a good, happy life awaits. But is the prospect of economic security enough to guarantee a happy life?

In Redefining Success in America: A New Theory of Happiness and Human Development, Michael B. Kaufman challenges this mythical belief of a happily-ever-after. He argues that there is more than “objectively measured career success”—a commonly conceived notion combining “occupational prestige” and “household net worth” (p. 121)—to how happy people are. Critiquing the use of the cross-sectional, self-report survey method commonly used in happiness research, Kaufman uses in-depth, longitudinal interview data to explore the meaning of “happiness” and to develop a paradigm that is “holistic, specific and context-sensitive” (p. xiii). In the early 2000s, he started tracing the participants of the Harvard Student Study, a project that examined the experience and development of alumni of Harvard College, then an all-male institution, who were undergraduates in the 1960s. The study included survey responses from 400 students and in-depth interviews with a subsample of 50 students over the course of their undergraduate career. In addition to administering a follow-up survey with more than 200 alumni who took part in the initial survey study, Kaufman conducted in-depth clinical life-history interviews with 40 of the 50 original interview participants to examine whether those young men from the 1960s actually viewed themselves as having achieved happiness 40 years later.

Taking a grounded theoretical approach to examining the interview data from both the 1960s and the 2000s, Kaufman explores the participants’ “subjective experience” of their careers and other aspects of their lives (p. 22). He maps participants’ emotions and reactions toward their experiences onto a spectrum of overall affect that he calls the scale of “intrapsychic brightness and darkness” (p. 25). The scale incorporates not only the participants’ discrete experiences (e.g., with their careers, families, and friends) but also their life goals and whether they were met. In describing the unique contribution of this scale, Kaufman explains that unlike existing survey measures, this spectrum aims to draw a comprehensive and holistic picture of participants’ happiness by taking into account emotional reactions, cognitive interpretations of their experiences, and behavioral decisions over a lifetime. On the “bright,” happy end of the spectrum are individuals who are generally positive about their life and its purpose, who can adjust their life goals, and who can reflect positively on various aspects of their lives even if they have failed to meet certain life goals or social expectations. On the other end sit “dark,” unhappy individuals, those who tend not to engage fully with their roles or relationships and who experience a sense of powerlessness in meeting their life goals. Such individuals also tend to aim to “self-repair” (p. 73), or fix themselves, so that they meet the life goals or social standards they feel obliged, but fail, to reach. Those in the middle of the spectrum show a mix of these emotions and reactions to their experiences.

Taking advantage of the longitudinal data set of the graduates, Kaufman further explores whether the participants’ happiness as undergraduates in the 1960s predicted their happiness as middle-aged men in the 2000s. Kaufman concludes that there are two models of happiness over time: the Stability model and the Change model. Drawing a parallel to Bronfenbrenner’s (1994) ecological models, he emphasizes the role of the overarching worldview— what he calls the “identity story” (p. 89)—that develops early in life and influences how people, as unique individuals, experience and interpret subsequent events and situations. About two-thirds of the interviewees followed the Stability model, where their happiness as undergraduates was similar to their happiness forty years later. Cultural contexts and social expectations, he argues, reinforced their identity stories and lead to relatively stable levels of happiness in the majority of the participants. The other third of the sample followed the Change model, where variations in “an interaction between the environment and the individual,” such as the individual’s emotional and behavioral reaction toward the death of a close family member, lead to significant shifts in the early worldview, which subsequently changed how they viewed and interacted with their surroundings and ultimately how happy he was in later years (p. 135). Kaufman’s framework ultimately emphasizes the importance of reconceptualizing happiness as not just a degree from a prestigious institution or the economic security that may come with it but, rather, as a cumulative result of human relationships and experiences.

One question that this book leaves unanswered is whether these models can indeed represent experiences of happiness and well-being in the general population more broadly. The sample for the study was, after all, comprised entirely of highly educated male students in the US who were widely regarded as the high achievers of their times, regardless of how they assessed their own achievements. While many of the participants “felt that they could have achieved more in their careers,” all of them graduated from Harvard College, and only a handful actually failed to hold a stable career (p. 167), an outlier achievement in the context of the broader US population. While Kaufman suggests a universal application of his models, he also briefly acknowledges that the scale would need to be adapted to “reflect the unique sociocultural conditions” of other groups to explore the meaning of happiness in their lives (p. 203).

In addition, while Kaufman presents additional quantitative analyses of survey data from the subsample of interviewees to help “place this research in conversation with quantitatively observed explanations of happiness and development” (p. 118), the qualitative findings may instead have benefited from further presentation of the data and related vignettes. Especially given the richness of the qualitative data collected as part of the initial study and the longitudinal follow-up study, Kaufman’s quantification of variables, such as the numeric values assigned to the scale, seem to limit our understanding of the complexity and nuances of the individual experiences and happiness— one of the main goals of the longitudinal study presented in the book. Additional vignettes that showcase the unique contribution of the overall affect scale could have been particularly helpful, especially given the author’s focus on the scale’s descriptive rather than prescriptive function.

Redefining Success in America will be most intriguing and thought-provoking to readers interested in understanding the role that the sensemaking of subjective experiences plays in people’s happiness. It may also be useful for researchers who value holistic and longitudinal approaches to understanding adult development. As Kaufman says in discussing the implications of the models discussed in the book, “Happiness is the product of development” (p. 200), and we need to examine it as “part of an account of human development” (p. 209) more broadly.

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