The Harvard Grant Study is a longitudinal study of 75 years that follows 268 Male Harvard Undergraduates. George Valliant in his book “Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study” describes his findings. He and his team observed many different aspects of the participants’ lives – mental and physical health, career prosperity, retirement experience and quality of their marriages – at regular intervals (at least every 2 years). As it inevitably occurs in such big studies, the researchers lost contact with several participants over the years but were able to trace them down at later stages of their lives. The goal of the study was to identify the main predictors of a healthy and fulfilling life. The key takeaway from this book is that life is extraordinarily complicated; it’s extremely difficult, nay, impossible, to predict one’s future. As George says, “People are complicated; memory, emotion, and reality all have their own vicissitudes, and they interact in unpredictable ways.” Success now doesn’t imply success in the future. Here are some of the most interesting ideas discussed in the book:
1. Identity. To achieve identity is to separate from social, economic, and ideological dependence upon one’s parents. To live independently of family and to be self-supporting. It’s not merely running away from one’s house, it’s to distinguish one’s own values from surrounding one’s, and remaining true to them even when life is at its most contradictory and confusing. It’s to have the capacity to think and make your own decisions of right and wrong. Separation and individuation are lifelong processes.
2. Intimacy. To have the capacity to live with another person in an emotionally attached, interdependent, and committed relationship over a long period of time (in the study, 10 years).
3. Career Consolidation. To distinguish between a job and a career, one needs to focus on 4 words: commitment, compensation, contentment, and competence.
4. Generativity. The wish and capacity to foster the next generations. Community building, mentorships, not raising children, growing crops, or writing books.
5. Guardianship. Guardians are caretakers. They take responsibility for the cultural values and riches from which we all benefit, offering their concern beyond specific individuals to their culture as a whole; they engage a social radius that extends beyond their immediate personal surround. Caregivers however care for others in a direct, forward-oriented relationship – mentor to mentor, teacher to student.
6. Integrity. The capacity to come to terms constructively with our pasts and our futures in the face of inevitable death. It is a demanding achievement that requires the embrace of contradiction: How do we maintain hope when the inevitability of our end is staring us in the face?
Longitudinal studies. A lot can change in one lifetime, life is short but at the same time quite long. The snapshot you take of someone’s life at 20,30 or even 40 can be drastically different from the snapshot you take in his/her later years, at 60, 70, or 80. Something that is true at one time of life may not be necessarily true at another. Even a hopeless midlife can blossom into a joyous old age. Life is too complex to plan or to plot beforehand. Other studies, besides the Harvard Grant Study, include: The Glueck Study of Juvenile Delinquency, The Berkeley & Oakland Growth Studies, The Framingham Study & the Terman women. If time permits, I would like to conduct a key distillations of the principles found in these studies.
Change. To some degree, at least, we always remain the people that we were. Everyone is consistent in some things and not in others, yet ultimately true to some fundamental essence in themselves. The more things change, the more they stay the same. But people do change, and people can grow. Childhood need be neither destiny nor doom. People change; people don’t.
Childhood. In individual case records, we frequently observed the following unhappy sequence. A poor childhood led (first) to an impaired capacity for intimacy, and (second) to an above-average use of mood-altering drugs. Warm childhoods clearly gave the more fortunate men a sense of comfort with and acceptance of their emotional lives that lasted into old age, while bleak early years led their survivors with (third) an educing apprehension about trusting and facing the world by themselves. The fourth and cruelest aspect of bleak childhood was its correlation with friendlessness at the end of life. The cherished were likely to be rich in friendships and other social supports at 70 – five times more like than the loveless who trusted neither the universe nor their emotions, and remained essentially friendless for much of their lives. The people who don’t learn to love early pay a high price.
Midlife is crucial. How you feel at age 50 will have a much bigger impact when you’re 70 than in your early years. The struggles you had as a teenager or a young adult will slowly become insignificant as you progress through life. Lifestyle choices you make in midlife are a more important predictor of how long you live. Abstinence from alcohol is recommended. Socially anxious men struggle for decades in emotional isolation and then mature past it.
Play. Enjoy where you are now. There’s all this youth, there’s this pressure, by age 45 most men amounted to something. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Marriage. Passive-aggression is a terrible coping technique that often leads to bad marriages. Most of us enjoy love when we can get it. But in developmental terms, both intimacy and positive mental health reflect the process of replacing narcissism with empathy, a progressive amalgam of love and social intelligence that is essential to the development of mature defense mechanisms and optimum adaptational skills.
Mature coping mechanism. A happy old age requires both physical and mental health. For mental health, love is a necessity. We need physical and cognitive competence to build the social surroundings that gives us love and support later on, encouraging us to care for ourselves well and keep ourselves healthy, even when the going gets rough. Involuntary coping is to buffer sudden change in the four sources of mental conflict: relationships, emotions, conscience and external reality. Defenses are extremely important to comfortable and effective functioning but not essential for good health and successful physical aging. The mature defense includes altruism (doing as one would be done by), anticipation (keeping future pain in awareness), humor (managing not to take oneself too seriously), sublimation (finding gratifying alternatives) and suppression (shutting your mouth). To endure life’s slings and arrows, our coping mechanisms mature overtime. In marriage, the main development task for younger couples is managing conflicts. The main task for older couples is mutual support, being in a good marriage buffers you from the effects of pain and disability.”
Predictors of success. Cohesive homes. Warm childhoods (of which parents are ideal but not necessarily the main source, cold childhoods impaired people’s capacity to love). Good relationships with your siblings. Mature coping styles. Warm mothers. Finding love. Graduate school. Intimate friends (sharing of your joys and sorrows). Practical & organized (healthy midlife). Well-integrated (physically active and cognitively intact old age). Self-starting (no importance in midlife, healthy end life). Good father relationship → Less anxiety & better life satisfaction in late life. Forgiveness. Low lifetime distress. Success & enjoyment at work (feeling connected to one’s work was far more important than making money or achieving traditional success). Subjective health. Social support (other than wife & kids). Good marriage & attachment. Love. Play. Optimism.
Predictors of failure. Inability to deal with anger. Poor fathering → Poor marriages. Resentment. Alcoholism (Poor mental health, failed relationships, divorce: 57% divorce → Alcoholism). Pessimism. Non-predictors of success. Early financial and social advantage. Physical health in childhood. Birth order. Death of a parent in childhood. Parental social class. Childhood traumas (damaged children in their growth can find ingenious ways to compensate for early deprivation). Income. Social class. Parent’s marriage not related to one’s own marriage.
Limitations. Life is infinitely complex. It’s still a very small sample size, the study offers a thoughtful blueprint on the way to achieve a fulfilling life. Unfortunately, the study didn’t include any women. However, I’m sure in the years to come, more and more studies like this will be released to the public, and as a result, we’ll be able to paint an even clearer picture of life.Quotes: “To inspire people to seek all sides of a problem.” “With age, you acquire more understanding. The things you felt so passionate about when you are young, you learn to let go of. You realize that all those things you thought you were going to be, you ain’t. As I have often said, at this stage in life it’s not what you’ve accomplished in a day, but how the day felt.” “Empathy through which one must synthesize both care and justice.” “Tolerance and a capacity to appreciate paradox and irony even as one learns to manage uncertainty.” “A seamless integration of affect and cognition.” “Self-awareness combined with an absence of self-absorption.” “The capacity to ‘hear’ what others say.” “What human beings need are limits to their behavior and freedom to realize their true selves – we really need a societal consensus on limits balanced with freedoms. I think these limits and freedoms and the balance between them change with the culture.” “It’s the old who can teach us that life is worthwhile ‘to its very end.'” “[Marital problems were due to his own] emotional immaturity coupled with the habit of gravitating to persons whose emotions were less stable than my own.”