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
- stable marriage
- not smoking
- not abusing alcohol
- healthy weight
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 (I repeat: 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.