June 1, 2013

Triumphs of experience by George E. Vaillant

Triumphs of experience by George E. Vaillant
The men of the Harvard Grand Study

The Grand study is a longitudinal prospective study - a group of participants is observed over time and data about points of interest (variables) are collected at repeated intervals. The first subjects were 64 carefully chosen sophomores from the all-male Harvard college classes of 1939,40 & 41.

It is easy to rate a beautiful woman according to how many people think her so, or how well she confirms to some established ideal, or how long she keeps her looks. But rating like that can’t encompass the difference between being beautiful at one’s high school prom and being beautiful at one’s great-granddaughter's wedding, not between the beauty at 18 that is the luck of the draw and the beauty at 80 that is the result of a life generously lived. The Grand study was hoping to learn something about nuances like these in its exploration of success and ‘optimum’ health.

In 2009, The Atlantic asked me to identify the most important finding of the Grant study since its inception. Without any official evidence to back me up, I answered rashly: “The only thing that really matters in life are your relations to other people”.

Which matters more, nature or nurture? Is constitution or environment more important? The nature part was easy: In 1940, the Grant Study researchers were betting that a muscular, classically ‘masculine’ body build could predict future success and they had amassed a huge amount of information about the men’s physiques. The ‘nurture’ part was different story altogether.  Which best predicts successful old age: physical endowment, childhood, social privilege, or early love?

Decathlon of Flourishing:
Included in Who’s who in America
Earning income in the study’s top quartile
Low in psychological distress
Success and enjoyment in work, love and play since age 65
Good subjective health at age 75
Good subjective and objective physical and mental health at age 80
Mastery of the Eriksonian task of Generativity
Availability of social supports other than wife and kids between age 60 and 75
In a good marriage between ages 60 and 85
Close To kids between ages 60 & 75

What variables predicts a high decathlon score are age 60-80

A - Variables reflecting constitutional factors:
Mesomorphy     - Not significant (NS)
Masculine body builds - NS
Vital affect - Significant (S)
Athletic prowess - VS (very significant)
Treadmill run - S
Sociable / extroverted - NS
Mean ancestral longevity - NS
Alcoholic relative - NS
Depressed relatives - NS
Good childhood temperament - S

B - Variables reflecting social class
Social class (upper-upper to blue collar)    NS
Maternal educations
Paternal education - NS

C. variables reflecting attachment
Warm childhood - VS
Overall College soundness - VS
Empathic coping - VS
Warm adult relationships - VS

There are two pillars of happiness revealed by the 75 old Grant Study. One is love and the other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.

Here are the ultimate lessons of the Grand Study

1. Positive mental health does exist and to some degree can be understood independent of moral and cultural biases. But for this to happen, we must acknowledge our value judgments and define them operationally and we must prove the validity of our definitions important.

2. Once we leave the study of psychopathology for positive mental health, an understanding of adaptive coping is crucial.

3. the most important influence by far on a flourishing life is love. The majority of the men who flourished found love before thirty and that was why they flourished.

4. People really can change and people really can grow.

5. What goes right is more important than what goes wrong and that is the quality of child’s total experience.

6. If you follow lives long enough, they change, and so do the factors that affect healthy adjustment.

7. Prospective studies really do elucidate life’s mysteries.


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