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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Happiness & Our Relationships: The Grant Study at Harvard

The Atlantic Monthly recently published an article about happiness: What Makes Us Happy by Joshua Wolf Shenk. The article is based on a longitudinal study effected by Harvard covering the lives of 268 young men who entered the university in the late 30's for over seventy years, in order to study their health and well-being over the decades.

The longtime director of the study, George Vaillant, was mainly interested in how these men responded to difficulties that they encountered in their lives, but he was well aware that a mere glimpse into an individual's life was not enough, as it can be "deeply misleading". What is true of a man's reactions to life at age 20 is not necessarily true thirty years later.

Vaillant has written extensively about many of the men in the study (anonymously), and Joshua Shenk, the author of this article, recounts Vallaint's take on one in particular. Vallaint presented him "as an exemplar of how mature adaptations are a real-life alchemy, a way of turning the dross of emotional crises, pain, and deprivation into the gold of human connection, accomplishment, and creativity. ´Such mechanisms are analogous to the involuntary grace by which an oyster, coping with an irritating grain of sand, creates a pearl,´ he writes. ´Humans, too, when confronted with irritants, engage in unconscious but often creative behavior.´"

By the time the members of the study were reaching retirement, Vaillant identified "seven major factors that predict healthy aging, both physically and psychologically."
  • employing mature adaptations
  • education
  • stable marriage
  • not smoking
  • not abusing alcohol
  • exercise
  • healthy weight
Vaillant concluded that in order to reach the age of 80 in a good place, five or six of these factors had to be in place at age 50. Of the men who only had 3 or 4 of these factors in place at age 50, none reached the age of 80 in a good place.

One of Vaillant's main interests was the power of relationships. "It is social aptitude, not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging." When asked what he had learned from the men in the Harvard study, he responded: "the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people."

The article is enormously interesting and goes into great detail about the study. Read the entire article here.

You can also watch George Vaillant here on this 6-minute video talking about Harvard's enormously fascinating study of 268 men for over 70 years.

In it he says a number of things I wanted to enumerate:
  • Aging is a lot less scary than people think it is
  • The take home lesson is always to enjoy where you are now
  • Playing and loving and working is what is important
  • Loving is probably the most important
  • Happiness is love



    If you have difficulties viewing the video, click here to see it at the original website.

2 comments:

  1. I appreciate this post -- this is what I call 'relevant!' (Well-written, helpful, interesting... this blog is exactly the kind of blog that I most enjoy. I'll be back!)

    I'm 43 at the moment, and to see a checklist of what I can cultivate in my life now in order to arrive at age 80 in a healthy and happy place... I mean: wow. This is info I can use!

    ~Dane ( @danenow on twitter )

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  2. Thanks, Dane. I agree totally. If you read the entire article that I link to in my blog, you will find much more valuable information culled from the Grant Study.

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