Triumphs of Experienceby George E. Vaillant
At a time when people are living into their tenth decade, the longest longitudinal study of human development ever undertaken offers welcome news for old age: our lives evolve in our later years and often become more fulfilling. Among the surprising findings: people who do well in old age did not necessarily do so well in midlife, and vice versa.
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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.
Meet the Author
George E. Vaillant is Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
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