New York City–based clinical psychologist Cecilia M. Ford, who writes regularly for us, found George E. Vaillant’s recent book about a long-term study of men’s happiness, Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, enlightening. “Though it looks only at the lives of men,” she notes, “it provides valuable information about the study of adult development and raises interesting questions about how such a study of women might look in contrast.”

 

“Happiness is love. Full stop.”

511XEGvp9YLThe study of psychology, like all academic disciplines, has undergone many shifts in emphasis and fashion throughout the years. Freud burst onto the scene in the early 20th century with the study of psychopathology in his Victorian patients. One hundred years later, American psychologists are currently excited by the ideas of Martin Seligman’s “positive” psychology: the study of health, happiness, and mental well-being.

The Harvard Grant Study, which began in the 1930s, is an ace in the hole. William Grant, a chain-store magnate, donated a sum to begin a longitudinal study of the physical and mental health of men over the course of their lives. Harvard undergraduates from the classes of 1940 to ’43 were carefully selected for mental and physical soundness to form a group of over 200 who would be followed by researchers for the next 75 years, at a cost of more than $20 million. JFK and Ben Bradlee were among them; Leonard Bernstein and Norman Mailer were rejected as subjects (almost 100 percent of the participants are still anonymous).

Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who took over the study 40 years ago and has written four books about it, emphasizes in this latest volume the particular strengths of such a long-term study of development—almost unique in the field. Among the questions he tries to answer are: What predicts future happiness and success? What factors contribute to these more or less throughout the life cycle? Finally, how do we define happiness and success, and how have those definitions changed over time?

The values of the era in which the study began dominated the picture of what might predict and define success. For example, physical anthropology, much in vogue at the time, predicted that body build and type would correlate highly with success and happiness (it didn’t). Vaillant himself admits that his lens has shifted as he has matured—one man that he wrote of in his 1977 volume Adaptation to Life was described as an entirely different case because Vaillant viewed him so differently 30 years later. The man had changed, true, but so had Vaillant and his perspective.

Nevertheless, the researchers rely heavily on “hard data” as well as subjective reports such as interviews and questionnaires. Their criteria for a “life well-lived” is heavily pegged to factors such as career success and income. Writing in 1977, Vaillant viewed a stable marriage of long duration as something in the plus column. He has since revised his opinion, discovering that men who divorced and remarried happily often fared better than those who stuck it out in bad marriages. Social support and relationships, however, are the most important ingredients in the end.  Vaillant concludes, “Happiness is love. Full stop.”

Love, it seems, offers a “protective” shield as we age. Men who “scored” well in this category lived longer, healthier, and happier lives than other subjects. Other predictive factors were education, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, and healthy weight. Vaillant is particularly grim about alcohol abuse: No subjects who abused alcohol scored well in the end (indeed, several very promising subjects nose-dived), and all died earlier than their cohorts.

Although education was of course a given for these subjects, not all were privileged by wealth or warm family backgrounds. Also, there was an attempt to find a “control” group. A smaller sample of inner-city Boston men, when matched and compared with the Grant Study men, yielded similar results. Of particular significance was the finding that among the “inner city” men, education protected against many of life’s earlier and later misfortunes. It acted like an invisible “health shield” throughout life.

Having the same subjects available for examination over the course of their whole lives yielded a trove of data that researchers are still sorting and considering. By looking back at the whole picture, rather than just the parts, Vaillant and his colleagues were able to discern some points that aren’t always easy to see. Most interesting to me is that they found “What goes right is more important than what goes wrong” (italics mine) in one’s childhood experience, and how it affects the course of one’s life.

A few subjects whose grim childhood lives predicted a poor outcome, and who did indeed make slow or bad starts with relationships, were able to draw on hidden reserves and benefit from life’s felicitous accidents in the future. Thus, a warm parent can make up for a harsh, neglectful one, and even teachers’ (or Harvard researchers’?) interest can light a spark that can later be kindled.

For Vaillant, taking over the Grant Study was a mutually felicitous encounter, since it was languishing without him. He brought to it the rigor of a scientist but also the sensitivity of a humanist. He has graced the results with the depth of thinking and understanding that they deserve. Positive psychology, while worthwhile, can be dangerously shallow. Health is well worth striving for, but it is not static—life is an organic process that requires constant adaptation, both physically and psychologically. Vaillant found that developing and maintaining mature and flexible adaptive mechanisms is key.

Finally, he never loses sight of the fact that each of these subjects is an individual, and try as researchers may to generalize their findings, the course of each man’s life is unique. Again and again Vaillant was surprised at a turn that someone’s life took despite the reams of “predictive” data he had at his disposal. As the case histories come to life on the page, you recognize them as who they are in all the complexities of their well-lived lives: George Vaillant’s old friends.

 

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