What Makes Us Happy? Journalist Joshua Wolf Shenk gained access to one of the most comprehensive studies conducted to find the formula for happiness. "What Makes Us Happy?" is his essay in the June issue of The Atlantic. Shenk, along with Todd Kashdan, professor of psychology and author of Curious: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life, explore what makes us happy.

What Makes Us Happy?

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Happiness along the realm of the philosophy is more recently the study of scientific research which attempts to quantify answers for the seemingly subjective question, what makes us happy? One of the best known and informative studies has followed one particular group for more than 70 years. Two hundred sixty eight white men who entered Harvard University in the late 1930s had agreed to periodic mental and physical tests every few years thereafter. They're supposed to be anonymous but it's known that the group included a former president of the United States, John Kennedy, and the former editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradley. A privileged group to be sure. What does 70 years of research teach us about the formula to live a good life?

Later in the hour, we'll go to Wichita to get the latest on the murder yesterday of Dr. George Tiller and ask how this changes the conversation about abortion. But first, what makes us happy? And we want to hear from older listeners today. What have you learned about happiness over the year that surprised you? Our phone number 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joshua Wolf Shenk is director of the Rose O'Neill Literary House at Washington College. His essay on what's known as the Grant study appears in the June issue of The Atlantic. And he joins us today from the studios of the public radio station in KGNU in Boulder, Colorado. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. JOSHUA WOLF SHENK (Director, Rose O'Neill Literary House): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And some of these case studies that you write about are just fascinating. In fact, they've been written about for - many years, this is sort of - a lot of people have seen that documentary "7 Up". This is "7 Up" on a grand scale.

Mr. WOLF SHENK: It is. The case files of Grant study are enormous. They are like - they're the size of unabridged dictionary and in these files you see these men's lives from the time they are 19 all the way through to their late 80s or in many cases their - their death.

CONAN: And a lot of people would say, wait a minute, what can we generally learn from the study of a very privileged white and male group?

Mr. WOLF SHENK: Yeah, well, you know, the remarkable thing is that these guys had everything going for them. Social privilege, education, all the advantages that could possibly be conferred. And their generation was a very privileged generation in that, you know, they came of a age, you know, at a - pretty wealthy time. And yet, they encountered all manner of difficulties through their lives. And so, you know, in some ways they're a perfect specimen because they, you know, are handpicked for, you know, health and well being. And yet their lives have turned out to be much more complicated than you might think.

CONAN: And some of them - the examiners early on in these studies said - this young man is a golden boy, he is just going to be going on great. Tell us, for example, about case study number 47 who literally fell down drunk and died.

Mr. WOLF SHENK: Yeah, well, there are two studies - there are two cases that I spent a fair amount of time with in the piece. And one is this - identified in the piece as case 47, an exuberant young man who identified himself in his interviews in college as manic depressive, he said that he thought that term described him really well. He had two marriages that both fell apart. He became a really heavy smoker and drinker and yet, there is something incredibly exuberant and vital and almost mesmerizing about this man. It's the strangest thing because as you read his file, you know, you really see his life as a kind of train wreck in many ways and yet you find - I found myself inspired by him and excited and feeling - he talks about achieving the sense of wow in life. And he talks about, you know, what's the difference between a man who at the end of his life is gasping at his last breath and trying to turn back the clock to some kind of unfinished business and a man who really feels like he has squeezed that lemon. This is the man's phrase, squeeze that lemon. I end the piece on that phrase.

CONAN: Hmm…umm.

Mr. WOLF SHENK: And, you know, I think that this is a fascinating question because probably the main question of my essay is, to what extent can you account for the truth and goodness of these men's lives through science? And to what extent is this really a literary project? And here you have an experience with this case of a man whose life is extremely troubled and dark and difficult and yet, he has insights and awareness that is really inspiring and exciting. And that's familiar to anyone who has gone to see a movie or read a good book that were taking lessons from, you know, the paradoxes and the complications and not so much, you know, the cookie cutter stuff that often comes out in scientific studies.

CONAN: And some of the conclusions, you write, for example that there are any number of predictors for mental and physical good health, one of which is seven major factors that predict that and mature adaptations is one. Well, that makes sense. And the others include education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing drugs, exercise and healthy weight. None of that would strike anybody as particularly revelatory.

Mr. WOLF SHENK: Yeah, lot of the conclusions are common sense but it's very helpful to see them ratified with this extraordinary body of data and to see some of these common sense points drawn out and to see the particulars about them. So for example, you know, one of the major conclusions of George Valiant, who's directed the study for more than 40 years, is that relationships are absolutely essential to a good life. And he saw, you know, that it's not just relationships with one's parents but relationships with siblings are really crucial. And the men who had good relationships with their siblings in young life scored very high on his indices in later life. The same with, you know, not drinking alcohol. I think most people know that not abusing alcohol is important but when you see the way that the lives of these very privileged men fell apart in the face of alcohol and drug abuse and when you see, you know, the scientary(ph) effects of moderation, I think it's, you know, it's ratification for that common sense point.

CONAN: Our phone number is 800-989-8255, Email us: talk@npr.org. We want to hear from older listeners today. What did you think might predict happiness when you were younger that as you get older, well, you realize maybe you were misinformed earlier on. Again, the phone number 800-989-8255, Email: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Anthony. Anthony calling us from Mayfield Heights in Ohio.

ANTHONY (Caller): How are you doing?

CONAN: All right.

ANTHONY: I was just thinking about the question and I work for a hospice agency as a social worker. And this from my own life experience, too. I think when you're younger the more pain that you feel, the more things that happen to you that are considered negative, I think it gives you a better frame of reference, perspective about what is, you know, enjoyment, what is joy, what is sadness. I think a lot of people that don't go through a lot of pain end up seeking stuff that, you know, maybe they don't realize is joy and maybe they can never find it because they don't know what they're looking for exactly.

CONAN: In these case studies Joshua Wolf Shenk, do you find character builders, as we might describe it, do they play a role?

ANTHONY: (unintelligible) character.

CONAN: Hold on Anthony, we're trying to get an answer from our guest.

ANTHONY: Sure, oh yeah, please.

Mr. WOLF SHENK: Well, one of the stories I follow is this young man who is an absolute golden boy in every way. I mean, even within the sample that was picked from, you know, Harvard men for, you know, indices of health and well being, he was - they just raved about him, the researchers. And, you know, he got a higher degree and he went into a laudatory profession. He got a important posting. And you see him in his 30s totally fall apart and then he died of a very sudden disease. And you're left with this question, what happened to him? And is it possible that, you know, not having adversity or not having an opportunity to engage in a lot of the difficult things that people face in their 20s and 30s and beyond left him unprepared or unmoored when he met the inevitable challenges of making a relationship work and balancing his, you know, his own desires with, you know, with doing good in the world.

CONAN: Anthony(ph), thanks very much for the call.

ANTHONY: Thank you, that was excellent, appreciate it.

CONAN: Okay. In the late 1990s, a new scientific field emerged called positive psychology, which focused on positive emotions like happiness and fulfillment rather than tradition psychological attention to negative emotions such as depression, anger and resentment.

Our next guest, Todd Kashdan, teaches a positive psychology class at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, called the science of well-being. He's got a book out called "Curious: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life," and he's been kind enough to join us here today in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in today.

Dr. TODD KASHDAN (Professor, George Mason University; Author, "Curious: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life"): Oh, thanks for having me.

CONAN: And I wonder, at we're listening to Josh Shenk telling us about this grant study, how much of that do you - are you familiar with this? Does it play an important part in your field?

Dr. KASHDAN: Sure. George Valiant is one of the biggest pioneers in the study of really what makes life fulfilling.

CONAN: And so you are familiar with this as part of your work.

Dr. KASHDAN: Absolutely.

CONAN: And what lessons do you draw from it?

Dr. KASHDAN: Well, I think the main story that you can glean from this work is the idea of - science offers us these very simple explanations of what would work for the average person. So for the average person, optimism is good, or gratitude is good, or exercise is good, but what George Valiant's work is showing is that you can't understand strengths and resilience without context, and when you look in the context of people's lives, it depends on what time period.

How is their identity developing when you're studying them? And then what happens when you're younger is very different than what happens when you're older. And what we know is, most of what we know about strengths and resilience and recovery from adversity comes from studying college students, which are very different than studying people over the course of 70 years.

CONAN: And as you look at the lessons of this, are they applicable across the board? Do these Harvard men born to what Tom Brokaw would label the greatest generation…?

Dr. KASHDAN: I think they're applicable in a number of ways. One is that we get really excited about counter-intuitive findings. So if I was to tell you that ignoring your kids will make you live longer, everyone will stop and pick up that article and email it to all their friends. But when you read an article from George Valiant that says relationships are important, extremely important. Yes, we know that, and our grandmother could have told us that, but when you think about how much time and energy this finite, incredible currency we have at our disposal we spend on other things that have nothing to do with relationships and will have no appreciable benefit on our life, either in the short term or in the long term, these studies remind you of why aren't I investing more time and energy into my relationships? I know this, but I'm not doing it. And so we can't be reminded enough about this.

CONAN: This is the lesson gee, nobody ever died wondering why they didn't spend more time at overtime at work.

Dr. KASHDAN: That's right.

CONAN: Except those, of course, who worked here. Gentlemen, stay with us. I'm sorry, did you want to come in, Josh, quickly?

Mr. SHENK: Yeah, I just want to say that there's another fascinating dimension to the study, which is to say that, you know, relationships are really hard. And you know, one of George's emphases in later years has been the difficulty of positive emotions, which of course the happiness scientists rightfully emphasize and have helped us, you know, see how they work, but it turns out it's extremely hard to be loved. It's hard even to receive a compliment. And so there's a much, you know, deeper story than just laying these things out, you know, on a chart.

CONAN: One of the things you write about is the person who should have been able most to draw these lessons was George Valiant, and well, he had some problems in his life, too. We'll talk more about that when we come back from a short break. So stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about happiness today. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking about the longest and one of the best known and informative studies on what makes us happy. Our guests are Joshua Wolf Shenk. His essay "What Makes Us Happy?" appears in the June issue of the Atlantic; and Todd Kashdan, professor of psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Georgia.

We want to hear from older listeners today. What have you learned about happiness over the years that would have surprised your younger self? Our phone number, 800-989-8255, and our email is talk@npr.org. Todd?

Dr. KASHDAN: Yeah, I just wanted to comment on - Josh made a really good point at the end, before we went to break, which is, you know, this idea of happiness. We glop onto this simple, wastebasket term as it's equivalent to a fulfilling life. And what I think the lesson of Valiant's research is that much of what leads to a fulfilling life has almost nothing to do with happiness.

And so what you're hearing in these stories over the course of 70 years, the idea of developing wisdom, finding meaning in life and finding a purpose in life and achieving things and developing a tolerance of pain and distress, what these things, these elements require is exposure to tension, to stress, to adversity and loss. And during those periods, if you were to study them at that time, their lives wouldn't look happy in the slightest, but their lives might be quite fulfilling because of that righteous indignation and difficulties that they went through.

CONAN: And I wanted to follow up with you, Josh, on the point about George Valiant himself, who well, he might have tried to apply these principles, but as you suggested, it's not easy.

Mr. SHENK: Yeah, I mean, knowing the path that you see in other people and actually doing it for yourself are two very different points, and I think George illustrates another really common phenomenon. He's an aspiring, brilliant guy who has achieved magnificent work in his life, and we have much to be grateful to him for.

As with many artists and people who have achieved great things, when you look beneath the surface, you see a lot of darkness and difficulty that is often intertwined with the themes of that person's work.

I think a lot of us, you know, want to have the accomplishments of, you know, someone like Keith Richards. We think we can live this extremely simple, you know, and happy life like Mr. Rogers, and those two things just don't go together very often.

CONAN: Let's get a couple callers on the line. Pete's(ph) with us, calling from Eerie, Colorado.

PETE (Caller): Hi, this is Pete, and I guess what I'd like to say is when I was a young man, I thought that you could make other people happy, and they could make you happy. But what I've learned is that you're responsible for your own happiness, and by that I mean you can try to make other people happy, but you shouldn't be disappointed if it doesn't work, and certainly don't blame them. And so that's my point, that you're responsible for your own happiness.

CONAN: And at this stage, Pete, would you describe yourself as a happy person?

PETE: Very happy.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Todd?

PETE: (Unintelligible) anything else.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KASHDAN: You know, this is a very common theme that I hear as I've been giving book tours for my book on curiosity, which is 75- and 80-year-olds come, and they talk about that, you know, for 70 years, they lived the lives of what their parents wanted for them, what their friends wanted for them, what their lovers wanted for them, and it was only later in life did they realize that their passions and interests had almost nothing to do with what was gaining them acceptance and approval, and reaching that sort of pinnacle of knowledge, of knowing that if I didn't worry about approval, what would I be doing. And they change what they invest their time in. All of a sudden, they start to feel fulfillment in their lives.

CONAN: That's interesting, and Josh Shenk - thank you very much for the call, Pete - and Josh Shenk, one of the things, again sort of counterintuitive, is that Dr. Valiant would point out that some of these, well in the short term, some of those negative emotions are, well, very useful and might be more useful in some respects than those positive emotions.

Mr. SHENK: Yeah, that's true, and you know, also - you know, one of the really good pieces of news from this study is the way that our lives change naturally over time. So George talks about the adaptations are defenses, and they're ranked from, you know, the lowest, the psychotic defenses, to the most mature, like humor and altruism. And you do see people naturally moving more and more towards these mature defenses as they grow older.

So you know, someone in their 20s who might be labeled, you know, extremely difficult, antisocial, even mentally ill, might actually be on a path to maturity that's going to lead to beautiful things in his or her 30s or 40s or 50s. And I think looking at a whole life in this way is really helpful and really, really rare, in part because of the point that Todd makes, that a lot of our data, you know, comes from, you know, experiments done on college campuses. And it's so rare to be able to see people's lives scientifically and in a literary fashion over the course of their whole lives.

CONAN: Here's an email from Amalia(ph) in San Francisco. When I was in my early 20s, I thought having kids and being married was required to be happy. I'm in my late 50s now, no kids, single but many friends, good extended family relations, time to travel, healthy, active and happy. Was marriage a predictor, Josh Shenk?

Mr. SHENK: Good relationships, you know, across the board. Certainly, you know, for most people, their relationship with their spouse is critical.

CONAN: With their spouse if they have one.

Mr. SHENK: If they have one, and if not, you know, there are other ways in which, you know, good relationships can play out in your life, work relationships, sibling relationships. You know, contact with other people is, you know, a solitary thing as we see in the study and as we know in our lives.

CONAN: Everybody seems to know, yeah.

Dr. KASHDAN: I mean, I think what Josh brings up is really important, which is the types of relationships don't matter. It's the sense that you feel that there's a sense of belonging and that you feel that you're being accepted. And the idea of this culture of how many people can you add as friends on Facebook and how many people are you friendly with at work that you can go out with - it could be just one person that could be a confidant - is all you need if you feel a sense of belonging.

CONAN: Let's go to Andrea(ph), Andrea with us from Santa Barbara.

ANDREA (Caller): Yes I am, hi.

CONAN: Hi.

ANDREA: Well I was, you know, listening to your program, and I've been thinking about how happiness, you know, if I'm happy. I was happy growing up. I'm in my 50s now. One of my daughters suffered from a horrible, horrible tragedy, became a paraplegic secondary to having lupus and I'm really, really having a hard time coping with it. And I feel that if I was younger and had the chance to learn better coping mechanisms, maybe I'd be able to deal with the grief because it's been four years. My daughter's doing much, much better emotionally, and I'm still grieving. And so you know, you could have a wonderful family, you could have wonderful supportive friends, but if you can't get past that place of grief and knowing how to do that, I don't know how I'm ever really going to be happy again. I'm just really sad.

CONAN: And do you consider yourself - did you think you had more resilience than that?

ANDREA: Yeah, I really did. I mean, I think I had a very - I've had a very full life. I think I've had a good education. I have a blended family, married to a successful plastic surgeon here. I have - you know, we have one son together, and we each had two girls, but this one event that happened to my daughter just threw me. And I feel in some ways I had to disconnect from people that didn't understand what I was going through, and that's what I'm struggling with now.

I'm actually writing about it. It might even turn into something, but I'm really trying to discover - you know, I had hoped for her that she would do better, and then - and I realized that hope. She is doing better, but I forgot about what the hope for me was about as her mother and what kind of role mothers play when their children have a devastating thing happen to them. You know, it's really about coping with grief and how you're able to move on, and after four years, I'm still not able to do that. So I'm trying to figure out what can I do in my life to make it okay for me.

CONAN: And Josh, I wonder. Obviously Andrea, we're very sorry for your situation, but are there people in the study whose lives are illustrative of this point?

Mr. SHENK: There is actually a really moving case that I have not read but I heard about from a graduate student in psychology at Harvard who is working on something that's called post-traumatic growth about people who, you know, experience calamities, often physical calamities, and you know, are able to access greater depth and meaning.

She and I were reading our files alongside of one another, and I was reading this gentleman I began the hour discussing, and she was reading this other case, and we both had tears in our eyes towards the end. And one of the things that was really moving to me hearing from the caller is, you know, how badly she needs to hear from people who know what - you know, what it's like to go through what she's going through, and that quality of empathy and human connection, I think the study speaks to its value. And I think it also speaks to the limits of science in, you know, predicting or, you know, laying out on a slide, you know, what we need to do.

I'm actually - I have a very similar situation in my family and I have been writing this piece over the course of the last year. And I began the conversations with George Valiant in a hospital room where my dad was recovering from a plane accident. None of us expected it. None of us knew what to do but there is, I think, a hope that on top of the very profound challenges that he faces that there is some opportunity for growth and beauty and meaning.

Certainly, it's allowed his whole family to get close to him in a new way to support him and to be with him as he goes through what he's going through.

CONAN: Andrea, we wish you and your daughter the best.

ANDREA: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

ANDREA: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Okay. Here's an email from John in Grand Rapids. What role does actual physical location play in happiness? Is being where you want to be geographically a strong indicator of happiness? Todd Kashdan?

Prof. KASHDAN: Well, we know that we see different personality traits in certain regions even of the United States. And it fits almost every stereotype that you can imagine, where on the East and West Coast, you tend to see a real high frequency of people that are mindful, open-minded, compassionate, at the same time, extremely neurotic, lots of anxiety and depressive symptoms.

CONAN: And talk fast. Yeah.

Prof. KASHDAN: And talk fast such as myself. And in the middle of the country, you have people that have these really tight-knit, you know, in-groups that they can connect with. They feel a sense of belonging, a sense of meaning, these really strong value systems that they connect to.

And from that you can imagine blossoms very different sort of levels of happiness or we can say of different configurations of what leads to a fulfilling life, where you find lots of meaning in life and people that have strong ties to religion or their community. And when you're on the Coast and you have this openness and this curiosity, a lot of times it can lead to a lot of sort of fluid movement and sort of a lack of connective tissue to anything bigger than the self.

And so, at any particular moment, you could see a very fulfilling life. But over the large scale trajectory of a person's life, there could be a lot of emptiness and loss.

CONAN: And Josh Shenk, going - reading some of the stories that you did, so many of these people who obviously went to school in Boston and Cambridge ended up, well, many other widely scattered places.

Mr. SHENK: Yeah. I can't speak to the science as well as Todd has. I mean, I think that they - these men illustrate the, you know, particular culture that they grew up in and all of its advantages and all of its limitations. And I suspect that, you know, for each of our, you know, geographical, you know, settings that there are similar points.

One of the things I discuss in my piece is what's known in the happiness field as the Danish paradox. The Danes are consistently rated the happiest people on Earth and yet, you know, they're hardly a sanguine people. You know, I quote in the piece this standard saying, you know, if you ask someone in Denmark, how is it going? They'll say, and I'll try it in my Danish accent, (Danish spoken) which is, you know, it could be worse.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And that's so much of the way the Danes see the world. And so, they expect things are going to be troubling and difficult and they're not surprised when they are and they're pleasantly surprised when they're not. So do you call that happy? Do you call it contented? Is that something that you admire? It's certainly a mixed bag.

CONAN: We're talking about happiness today. You just heard Joshua Wolf Shenk who's written an article, "What Makes Us Happy" in the June issue of The Atlantic. And also with us is Todd Kashdan, a professor of psychology at George Mason University, the author of "Curious Discover, the Missing Ingredient To A Fulfilling Life." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Tim(ph) is with us calling from San Francisco.

TIM: Oh, hi. Well, I have a - my comment is, well, I'll let you know where I started. I started in a very abusive house growing up and I was raised by a rage-aholic, fairly mentally ill mother and alcoholic siblings. And it's taken me a while to - I was never raised with happiness in a secure environment. There was no happiness when I was growing up.

And it's only in my late 30s that I'm actually achieving some of that. I started a recovery program - recovering from my family, a 12-step program that I'm incredibly thankful for. And it's actually giving me a lot of peace and serenity around the idea that I can't control everything and I can't bring happiness to everybody.

And part of my happiness is actually letting go of life and letting it actually kind of unfold around me. That doesn't mean that I don't participate in my life. I definitely have an idea of where I want it to go. But actually letting it kind of unfold and do what it's gonna do is one of the things that has brought me a lot of very calmness and it'll be okay.

There's not something that, you know - I don't have to hold on with both fists, white knuckling every decision and try to make something work when it's actually not working and it's not going to work. I can actually let go and be okay with it. And I think that's - for me, the biggest part of my life is learning to just let go and let it happen and be happy with the outcome because more likely it's going to be what it should have been. So, that's my comment.

CONAN: Tim, John, I was going to just ask Todd. It sounds like Tim has drawn some useful lessons here.

Prof. KASHDAN: No - and I think what he talks about is applicable to almost every one of your listeners, which is this idea of, again, happiness being the ultimate objective in life. And one of the mantras I have in my book is we can't always be joyous and playful, but we can almost always be profoundly aware and curious.

And what you're hearing about him talk about is the idea - when he talks about letting go, it's the idea of accepting, I'm going to sort of explore sort of what moments have to offer. I'm going to extract more pleasure and meaning from things that are around me. And from that, those are the building blocks for creating a foundation, the architecture of a meaningful, sustainable, fulfilling life.

CONAN: And going back, Josh Shenk, to case number 47, the man who fell down drunk literally and died at the age of 64. Nevertheless, you suspect that at the end of his days, he would have said, well, that's okay, I squeezed that lemon.

Mr. SHENK: Well, and he was also suffering terribly. I mean, he was aware that he was an alcoholic and I think he was struggling to change that. I mean, the caller and Todd both identify this fascinating paradox or this tension I think we all have to struggle with between surrender, which is obviously what we need to do so much of the time, and applying our will, which is obviously what we need to do so much of the time. And finding the right balance of those two qualities is - it's beautiful when it happens and I think it's something that many of us spend much of our lives trying to achieve.

CONAN: Well, Tim, good luck achieving it.

TIM: Well, thank you for your time.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And I need to thank our guests for their time today. Todd Kashdan, who's with us here in the studio, professor of psychology at George Mason University, thanks very much.

Prof. KASHDAN: Thank you.

CONAN: And Joshua Wolf Shenk, director of the Rose O'Neill Literary House at Washington College. And again, his essay, "What Makes Us Happy" appears in the June issue of The Atlantic. And he joined us today from public radio station KGNU in Boulder, Colorado. Thank you very much.

Mr. SHENK: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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