Proof positive that things can get better
Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study
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