Proof pos­i­tive that things can get bet­ter

Tri­umphs of Ex­pe­ri­ence: The Men of the Har­vard Grant Study

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Christo­pher Croke

By Ge­orge Vail­lant Har­vard Univer­sity Press, 290pp, $39.95 (HB)

RE­FLECT­ING on his life’s work, Teddy Roo­sevelt once re­marked that the for­mula for a happy life lay in a piece of home­spun wis­dom: ‘‘ Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.’’ To­day, there is no bet­ter ev­i­dence for life’s com­plex­ity or the virtues of sim­ply mud­dling through than the Har­vard Study of Adult Devel­op­ment, the world’s long­est con­tin­u­ous psy­cho­log­i­cal study.

Started in 1938, the Grant Study, as it be­came known, af­ter an early bene­fac­tor, drew to­gether 268 men (all stu­dents at then sin­gle-sex Har­vard Univer­sity) and fol­lowed them through the course of their life­times, as they moved to dif­fer­ent jobs, coun­tries and fam­i­lies. The project arose from a be­lief that only af­ter a lon­gi­tu­di­nal study of en­tire lives could any­one de­ter­mine what made some men health­ier than oth­ers.

Now, al­most 75 years later — and af­ter most of the par­tic­i­pants have died — the time has come to pull it all to­gether. That task falls to Ge­orge Vail­lant, a re­tired Har­vard psy­chol­o­gist who man­aged the study for much of its ex­is­tence. In Tri­umphs of Ex­pe­ri­ence, Vail­lant el­e­gantly and per­sua­sively brings us an an­swer to the ques­tion that launched a thou­sand snake-oil sales­men: what makes for a suc­cess­ful and happy life?

The an­swer: a happy child­hood and lov­ing re­la­tion­ships. Th­ese may not be novel find­ings but they would have sur­prised the study’s founders. The ex­per­i­ment started with the hy­poth­e­sis that phys­iog­nomy ex­plained good health and success. Re­searchers took metic­u­lous note of the fur­rows of brow ridges or the hang­ing length of scro­tums. This wasn’t phrenol­ogy but a sort of benev­o­lent New World eu­gen­ics.

As the study pro­gressed, the re­searchers soon re­alised the lim­its of phys­i­cal pre­dic­tors of devel­op­ment and be­gan to take much greater in­ter­est in the men’s re­la­tion­ships and their sub­jec­tive sense of hap­pi­ness.

Now, as Vail­lant ex­plains, it is clear that for th­ese men, nur­ture trumped na­ture. Through the course of a life­time the best pre­dic­tor of success was not be­ing born rich or good- look­ing but be­ing born into a lov­ing and happy fam­ily. It was this that equipped peo­ple to deal with life’s in­evitable un­ex­pected set­backs. Hered­ity was a good pre­dic­tor of later-life health prob­lems but a poor pre­dic­tor of hap­pi­ness or strong re­la­tion­ships.

Per­haps even more com­fort­ing for to­day’s read­ers is the re­al­i­sa­tion that ‘‘ what goes right is more im­por­tant than what goes wrong’’. It was the over­all qual­ity of a child’s ex­pe­ri­ence rather than par­tic­u­lar trau­matic events or re­la­tion­ships that in­flu­enced devel­op­ment.

No one would de­sign such a study to­day. It would be too long, too ex­pen­sive and, above all, too un­rep­re­sen­ta­tive for mod­ern so­cial sci­en­tists. As Vail­lant ob­serves: ‘‘ The av­er­age Grant Study man was fifth-gen­er­a­tion Amer­i­can. A few were im­mi­grants but more than a few had fam­i­lies that had been here for 10 gen­er­a­tions. There were no African Amer­i­cans.’’ Yet ho­mo­gene­ity is really the study’s strength. Dif­fer­ences in out­comes can­not be ex­plained away on the ba­sis of vari­a­tion in cul­ture, sex or wealth.

Most Grant Study men were cho­sen be­cause they were thought likely to be suc­cess­ful. In seek­ing to ex­plain the mag­i­cal elixir for good health, the re­searchers were look­ing for life’s likely win­ners. Men with known med­i­cal or psy­cho­log­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties were ex­cluded. While most came from com­fort­able (of­ten ex­tremely priv­i­leged) fam­i­lies, there was a healthy sup­ple­ment of ‘‘ na­tional schol­ars’’: bright schol­ar­ship stu­dents from poor back­grounds who di­luted the Waspish hue.

Some of the study mem­bers achieved fame, most notably John F. Kennedy. Ben Bradlee, ed­i­tor of The Washington Post dur­ing the Water­gate era, has outed him­self as a study mem­ber. Norman Mailer was con­sid­ered but re­jected.

Mea­sur­ing success and hap­pi­ness was not al­ways easy for the re­searchers. In this book, Vail­lant has put to­gether what he calls the De­cathlon of Flour­ish­ing: a set of 10 in­di­ca­tors that to­gether cap­ture what a ‘‘ suc­cess­ful’’ life might look like at its end (things such as in­clu­sion in Who’s Who, high rel­a­tive in­come, a happy mar­riage, good phys­i­cal and men­tal health). The de­cathlon in­volves some crude

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