Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study

Overview

At a time when many people around the world are living into their tenth decade, the longest longitudinal study of human development ever undertaken offers some welcome news for the new old age: our lives continue to evolve in our later years, and often become more fulfilling than before.

Begun in 1938, the Grant Study of Adult Development charted the physical and emotional health of over 200 men, starting with their undergraduate days. The now-classic Adaptation to Life reported...

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Overview

At a time when many people around the world are living into their tenth decade, the longest longitudinal study of human development ever undertaken offers some welcome news for the new old age: our lives continue to evolve in our later years, and often become more fulfilling than before.

Begun in 1938, the Grant Study of Adult Development charted the physical and emotional health of over 200 men, starting with their undergraduate days. The now-classic Adaptation to Life reported on the men’s lives up to age 55 and helped us understand adult maturation. Now George Vaillant follows the men into their nineties, documenting for the first time what it is like to flourish far beyond conventional retirement.

Reporting on all aspects of male life, including relationships, politics and religion, coping strategies, and alcohol use (its abuse being by far the greatest disruptor of health and happiness for the study’s subjects), Triumphs of Experience shares a number of surprising findings. For example, the people who do well in old age did not necessarily do so well in midlife, and vice versa. While the study confirms that recovery from a lousy childhood is possible, memories of a happy childhood are a lifelong source of strength. Marriages bring much more contentment after age 70, and physical aging after 80 is determined less by heredity than by habits formed prior to age 50. The credit for growing old with grace and vitality, it seems, goes more to ourselves than to our stellar genetic makeup.

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Editorial Reviews

Martin Seligman
George Vaillant tells the story of the Grant Study men though age 91. This is, arguably, the most important study of the life course ever done. But it is, inarguably, the one most brimming with wisdom. If you are preparing for the last quarter of your life, this is a MUST read.
Laura L. Carstensen
Vaillant's fascination with the human condition and his deep insights about development make him a great storyteller, adept at elegantly conveying the essence of humanity.
New York Times - David Brooks
Of the 31 men in the study incapable of establishing intimate bonds, only four are still alive. Of those who were better at forming relationships, more than a third are living. It's not that the men who flourished had perfect childhoods. Rather, as Vaillant puts it, 'What goes right is more important than what goes wrong.' The positive effect of one loving relative, mentor or friend can overwhelm the negative effects of the bad things that happen. In case after case, the magic formula is capacity for intimacy combined with persistence, discipline, order and dependability. The men who could be affectionate about people and organized about things had very enjoyable lives. But a childhood does not totally determine a life. The beauty of the Grant Study is that, as Vaillant emphasizes, it has followed its subjects for nine decades. The big finding is that you can teach an old dog new tricks. The men kept changing all the way through, even in their 80s and 90s.
Wall Street Journal - Andrew Stark
Vaillant concludes that personal development need never stop, no matter how old you are. At an advanced age, though, growth consists more in finding new hues and shades in one's past than in conceiving plans for the future. As the Harvard Study shows with such poignancy, older men treat what lies behind them much as younger men treat what lies ahead. The future is what young men dream about; they ponder the extent to which it is predetermined or open; and they try to shape it. For old men, it is the past they dream about; it is the past whose inevitability or indeterminateness they attempt to measure; and it is the past they try to reshape. For the most regret-free men in the Harvard study, the past is the work of their future.
Daily Beast - Dan Slater
To avid consumers of modern happiness literature, some of Vaillant's conclusions will seem shopworn ('Happiness is love. Full stop.'), while other results of the Grant Study appear to confirm what social science has long posited--that a warm and stable childhood environment is a crucial ingredient of success; or that alcoholism is a strong predictor of divorce. But what's unique about the Grant Study is the freedom it gives Vaillant to look past quick diagnosis, to focus on how patterns of growth can determine patterns of wellbeing. Life is long, Vaillant seems to be saying, and lots of shit happens. What is true in one stage of a man's life is not true in another. Previously divorced men are capable of long and loving marriages. There is a time to monitor cholesterol (before age 50) and a time to ignore it. Self-starting, as a character trait, is relatively unimportant to flourishing early in life but very important at the end of it. Socially anxious men struggle for decades in emotional isolation and then mature past it--relatively speaking. Triumphs of Experience is not only a history of how the Grant men adapted (or not) to life over 70-plus years, but of how author and science grew up alongside them. Yet what unifies Triumphs is the same question posed originally by Bock, the study's founder: What factors meaningfully and reliably predict the good life? Vaillant's mission is to uncover the 'antecedents of flourishing.'
Times Higher Education - E. Stina Lyon
George Vaillant's book on the development and well-being of a longitudinal sample of men, now in their nineties and studied regularly since they were undergraduates at Harvard University reads like a riveting detective tale... He has a thought-provoking story to tell about the lifelong significance of loving care...Brief life-story vignettes illustrate movingly how adult development and maturation is a lifelong process that strongly relates to the trans formative power of receiving and giving love... [The book's] well-evidenced wisdoms on the significance of nurturing relationships offer new multidisciplinary perspectives on the complex issue of nature versus nurture (much needed at a time when medical science and genetics once more dominate studies of human development) and on the lifelong costs of childhood emotional neglect.
Wilson Quarterly - Charles Barber
Triumphs of Experience elegantly summarizes the findings of this vast longitudinal study, unique in the annals of research...[The] book analyzes how the men fared over their late adulthood, and indeed their entire lives. In it, Vaillant masterfully chronicles how their life successes, or lack thereof, correlate with the nature of their childhoods, marriages, mental health, physical health, substance abuse, and attitudes. Extensive quantitative findings are interspersed with the detailed stories of individual study participants...Here Vaillant proves that his skills are literary as well as scientific. The case histories are engaging novelistic capsules that artfully bring the quantitative material to life...Many of its findings seem universal. If they could be boiled down to a single revelation, it would be that the secret to a happy life is relationships, relationships, relationships...The other overarching message of this book is that resilience counts...Vaillant is that rare thing: a psychiatrist more interested in mental flourishing than in mental illness. With Triumphs of Experience, he has turned the Harvard men's disparate stories into a single narrative and created a field guide, both practical and profound, to how to lead a good life.
The Australian - Christopher Croke
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? ...[An] engaging work. There are regrettably few studies of this magnitude and even fewer accounts that so ably synthesize the broader insights with the moving parts.
San Francisco Book Review - Aron Row
Reading like a storybook, the case histories of the individuals provide fascinating insights about how the subjects tackled challenges or succumbed to setbacks. Vaillant superbly explains how these lifelong experiences sculpted these men's final years. Readers can learn more about themselves and what they may expect from life by reading this revelatory and absorbing book.
New Republic online - Adam Plunkett
Offers broadly applicable evidence about how everything from early maturity to grandparents' longevity is likely to affect flourishing throughout life...It is hard to overstate the wealth of the data provided in Triumphs of Experience or the ambition of the project, composed of survey responses, health records, and interviews. This archive of human life is poised to answer questions shorter studies can barely hint at...Vaillant offers striking conclusions about a range of factors affecting human flourishing.
Choice - J. Clawson
This fascinating book of 'numbers' and 'pictures' is the final summary volume of a longitudinal psychosocial study focused on the optimum health of 268 males from Harvard College classes...This book is well worth reading for the discoveries contained in its pages; it has the potential to advance knowledge about adult development.
The Atlantic - Scott Stossel
The factor Vaillant returns to most insistently is the powerful correlation between the warmth of your relationships and your health and happiness in old age.
Kirkus Reviews
A fascinating account of the 268 individuals selected for the Harvard Study of Adult Development (the "Grant Study"), which "began in 1938 as an attempt to transcend medicine's usual preoccupation with pathology and learn something instead about optimum health and potential and the conditions that promote them." Vaillant (Psychiatry/Harvard Medical School: Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith, 2008, etc.) has done a wonderful job summarizing the study, discussing its major findings, and communicating his enthusiasm for every aspect of the project, which became his life's work starting in 1966. The study has been investigating what makes a successful and healthy life. Initially, this meant looking for potential officer material for the military. Vaillant established what he called "the Decathlon of Flourishing--a set of ten accomplishments in late life that covered many different facets of success." With humor and intriguing insights, the author shows how progress in health studies and the passage of time contributed to the constant "back and forth between nature and nurture." During Vaillant's tenure, human maturation and resilience became the focus, and now biology is reasserting itself in the form of DNA studies and fMRI imaging, the seeds for future research. The author considers the study's greatest contributions to be a demonstration that human growth continues long after adolescence, the world's longest and most thorough study of alcoholism, and its identification and charting of involuntary coping mechanisms. Inspiring when reporting these successes, his personal approach to discovery repeatedly draws readers in as he leads up to the account of his realization that the true value of a human life can only be fully understood in terms of the cumulative record of the entire life span. Joyful reading about a groundbreaking study and its participants.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674059825
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/31/2012
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 113,231
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

George E. Vaillant is Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


This book is about how a group of men adapted themselves to life and adapted their lives to themselves. It is also about the study, now 75 years old, out of which this story came. In it I will offer tentative answers to some important questions: about adult development in general, about the people us who engaged in this exploratory venture, about the study itself, and, perhaps above all, about the pleasures and perils of very long scientific projects.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development (the Grant Study, as it has come to be known) began in 1938 as an attempt to transcend medicine's usual preoccupation with pathology and learn something instead about optimum health and potential and the conditions that promote them. The first subjects were 64 carefully chosen sophomores from the all-male Harvard College classes of 1940 and 1941, who took part in an intensive battery of tests and interviews. That first group was joined by sophomores from the next three Harvard classes, resulting in a final cohort (as the panel of subjects in a study of this kind is called) of 268 men. The original intention was to follow these healthy and privileged men for fifteen or twenty years, supplementing the intake data from time to time with updates. Thus an abundance of information would accumulate about the men and the lives they constructed for themselves—information that could be analyzed at will over time and across different perspectives. (Interested readers will find much, much more on the history and structure of the Study in chapter 3).

That plan was realized, and more. Almost 75 years later, the Grant Study still, remarkably, goes on. We're asking different questions now than the founders asked when the Study began, and our investigative tools are different. Of course the participants are no longer the college sophomores they once were; those who are still with us are very old men indeed. Time has called some of the conclusions of fifty years ago (and some more recent ones, too) into question, and how long our current conclusions will endure we cannot know.

But whatever the uncertainties, asking questions and trying to answer them is always a fruitful process. We actually have learned some of what they wanted to know back in 1938. There's no longer any doubt about who of the 268 men who joined the study in those first five years would make it to age 90, physically capable and mentally alert. We know who managed to build happy and lasting marriages. We know who achieved conventional (or unconventional) career success. Best of all, we have 75 years' worth of data that we can refer back to (over and over again, if need be) to try to learn why these things turned out as they did.

But there are lots of other questions that still beg for attention. Some of them, even after all this time, are early Study questions that remain unanswered—about the relative importance of nature and nurture, for instance, or how mental and physical illness can be predicted, or the relationship between personality and health. Some are old questions that have been tabled in favor of new ones, while some are new questions that force us to formulate ever more cogently just what we're seeking to accomplish in even making inquiries like these. This last in particular is a constant concern of good science.

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Table of Contents

Cast of Protagonists ix

1 Maturation Makes Liars of Us All 1

2 The Proof of the Pudding: To Flourish for the Next Sixty Years 27

3 A Short History of the Grant Study 54

4 How Childhood and Adolescence Affect Old Age 108

5 Maturation 144

6 Marriage 190

7 Living to Ninety 224

8 Resilience and Unconscious Coping 261

9 Alcoholism 292

10 Surprising Findings 328

11 Summing Up 351

Appendixes 373

Notes 415

Acknowledgments 437

Index 441

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